Rishi Sunak has unveiled the government’s spending plans for the next year, with a public sector pay freeze, increases in health and defence spending, a £4 billion “levelling up fund”, and a broken Conservative manifesto promise: a cut to the overseas aid budget from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent.
The Chancellor’s argument for breaking the 0.7 per cent promise is that this is an “economic emergency” necessitating “tough choices”. Except, of course, that the 0.7 per cent target, unlike other spending commitments that are made as raw numbers, is explicitly designed to rise and fall in proportion to national income; it has already been cut in real terms, due to the contraction of the UK economy, and development experts were already concerned about the impact that this would have on the world’s poorest, even before Sunak’s announcement. As billions more are shaved off that commitment, Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, told MPs the cuts would cause “100,000 preventable deaths, mainly among children”.
The fact is that this is not actually an unpopular move in terms of public opinion: a Savanta ComRes snap poll found 61 per cent support the cut and just 13 per cent oppose it. It is also a useful way for Rishi Sunak to introduce the public to the idea of further necessary cuts down the line, without the political pain of an unpopular policy.
But this isn’t about public opinion; it’s about deeply held principles. David Cameron’s intervention yesterday to condemn the move echoes a feeling held among many Conservatives, including Liz Sugg, a foreign office minister who resigned yesterday over the issue: that the 0.7 per cent aid target is one of the pillars of the UK’s soft power on the global stage, and important both politically and morally. There is also the question of whether the cut will be permanent; the Chancellor says it won’t be, but provision is already made in statute for the UK to miss its target in extreme circumstances, meaning it didn’t require new legislation and the change is, MPs suspect, intended to be a permanent one.
MPs are to be given a vote on the issue, and it will be one to watch. As one would-be Conservative rebel puts it: “We think the vote will be in January and that we have the numbers to make it a very close vote.”