The government has seen off a back-bench rebellion to undo the cut in foreign aid from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent. The immediate consequence is a continuation of the already considerable cuts to our international development budget over the course of the past year, while Rishi Sunak’s spending plans have survived their first big parliamentary test.
Passing the foreign aid cut involved a very, very old parliamentary trick: to make an announcement so quickly and with sufficient fanfare that no one notices that you haven’t actually met your internal opponents halfway. Under the terms of the vote, the cut remains in place unless or until the British government is not borrowing money to fund day-to-day spending and underlying debt has fallen.
Now, the historical truth is that both these conditions have essentially never been met, and they are also not going to be met any time soon.
The point with his kind of thing isn’t that MPs actually believe it: it’s that it gives those who are looking for a way to come back in from the cold a pretext for doing so. Throw in some gentle and not-so-gentle hints from the whips to wavering backbenchers that a reshuffle may be on the way, and that’s how you see off a rebellion.
But while the aid budget has major champions on the Conservative back benches, it doesn’t have a particularly large constituency in the country as a whole, and most Tory MPs, rightly or wrongly, believe that there is not a big political cost to voting for cuts to foreign aid. The looming end to the Universal Credit uplift is a quite different proposition, and there are many more politically difficult cuts still to come.
A striking commonality of many of the back-bench speeches in support of the cut was that charity begins at home, that hardship here in the United Kingdom must be addressed first. But the reality of the government’s spending plans is that big cuts are coming in the UK too. Can a clever bit of policy spin and the promise of a reshuffle get the government through those votes – or is the foreign aid vote simply a false positive as far as the government’s pro-austerity majority is concerned? Only time will tell.