Boris Johnson has narrowly seen off a major backbench rebellion against his government’s cut to the international aid budget this afternoon, with MPs voting 333 to 298 in favour of scrapping the 0.7 per cent aid target.
This was a huge moment for the Prime Minister and his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. The proposed cut to the aid budget has been a lightning rod for the concerns of Conservative MPs who are worried about the direction of their party under Johnson. As Conservative rebel Caroline Nokes told me in March, this issue was a key battleground for One Nation Tories to take a stand and inflict a defeat on the government: the 0.7 per cent aid commitment was not only a 2019 Conservative manifesto pledge, but is viewed by many in the parliamentary party as a proud legacy of the David Cameron era, both morally important and a pillar of British soft power abroad.
Former prime minister Theresa May took the rare step of joining the rebels on the issue, telling the House of Commons: “Fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry, and more of poorest people in world will die” as a result of the cut. She, like the other rebels, was unimpressed by Rishi Sunak’s proposed “compromise” on the target. He offered a set of “tests” which could be met for the 0.7 target to be reinstated; May openly expressed her scepticism that the tests will be met within the next five years.
The very fact of the revolt, slashing the government’s majority from 80 to 35, speaks to the particular importance of the aid budget to plenty of Tory MPs, but also to the fractious mood in the Conservative parliamentary party under Johnson’s leadership. “There are rebellions cropping up everywhere,” one Tory MP says. “I’ve never seen anything like it in all my time in parliament.” Despite recent efforts to invite groups of MPs to meet Boris Johnson in Downing Street, to hold Zoom calls between Downing Street officials and backbenchers, and Rishi Sunak’s personal efforts last night to ring potential rebels and convince them to support the government, the feeling among some Conservative MPs is that it is “too late”. The febrile mood in the parliamentary party is unlikely to be tamed, and Conservative MPs who care deeply about this issue will be further alientated from their party.
But the government won the vote: it took a huge risk in holding it today, and it did, ultimately, pay off. It is a reminder, if one were needed, that the days of tight Brexit votes are over. We’re in a world of poor party management and unruly Conservative MPs, but one where Boris Johnson’s majority is just about large enough to withstand it.