Why cutting aid to Yemen is the new frontier in the Conservative Party’s civil war

The row over the aid budget is symbolic of a much bigger argument over the direction of the Tory Party.

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The UK government is drastically cutting its aid to Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis zone after six years of conflict, in a move that has been condemned by the UN secretary-general António Guterres as a “death sentence”. James Cleverly, the minister for the Middle East and North Africa, said yesterday that the UK government will provide “at least” £87m to Yemen this year, down from £214m last year.

As well as condemnation from Labour and other opposition parties, this cut – which comes at a time when Yemen is on the verge of famine (a fate avoided in 2019 by a huge injection of international aid – has prompted a robust backlash from prominent One Nation Conservatives including Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, and Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary and Boris Johnson’s rival for the Conservative leadership in 2019. Hunt said yesterday that “abandoning a forgotten country and people is inconsistent with our values, weakens our moral authority and reduces our influence”.

The move is being seen as an inevitable consequence of the Conservative government’s reduction of the international aid budget from 0.7 per cent of national income to 0.5 per cent, announced by Rishi Sunak last November. Morning Call readers might remember that, at the time, I wrote that the issue was a lightning rod for discontent among Cameroon Conservatives, who view the 0.7 per cent aid commitment as a proud legacy of the Cameron era and a pillar of British soft power, moral authority and influence in the world. When the cut was announced, David Cameron himself emerged from the shed at the bottom of his garden to condemn it, and there were rumblings of a significant Conservative rebellion when it came to a vote. The 0.7 figure was also, crucially, a Conservative manifesto commitment.

[see also: We have to keep our promise to the world’s poorest – and save the 0.7 per cent aid target]

When I wrote about this in November, Conservative MPs were expecting a vote on the aid target in January 2021. That date has come and gone, with would-be rebels now unsure when a vote will take place; but they note that the 0.7 is enshrined in statute, and can only by changed by law and a vote. Andrew Mitchell warned yesterday that going ahead with the reduction without passing the new aid budget through parliament would amount to the government “effectively presiding over an unlawful budget with these terrible cuts”.

Of course, halving aid to Yemen doesn't mean in and of itself that the UK government is breaking its statute-bound aid commitment; it could, in theory, continue to meet its 0.7 per cent commitment by spending elsewhere. But the drop in aid to the poorest country in the Middle East is being understood as a harbinger of the wider cuts that will follow the cut to 0.5 per cent of GDP (which amounts, it is worth remembering, to effectively halving the aid budget, because the shrinking of GDP due to the coronavirus crisis means the budget would be substantially reduced even without the cut).

Mitchell has an urgent question on the aid allocation to Yemen this morning, while MPs speculate on the timing of the fateful vote on the overall aid target. There have been reports that the vote could be put off until after the G7 in June, while others suspect it could be rolled into the Budget votes in the coming weeks.

The row over the aid budget is one of the main frontiers of the Conservative resistance to Boris Johnson's government, and is symbolic of a much bigger fight over the direction of the Conservative Party. It is thought the numbers would be big enough to defeat the government in the Commons and the Lords, and likely rebels include Theresa May and David Davis. One would-be rebel suspects the government could threaten them with loss of the whip. “It’s going to be a big story at some point,” they said.

[see also: Rishi Sunak's aid budget cut has split the Tory party]

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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