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16 June 2020

David Cameron has broken his silence to criticise Boris Johnson. Here’s why

The former prime minister has long prepared for the moment the Foreign Office and the Department of International Development are merged. 

By Stephen Bush

It’s official: the Foreign Office will merge with the Department of International Development in September. This is probably the most well-orchestrated departmental reorganisation in British history: it builds on the work that Theresa May’s government did in gradually bringing the two departments under one roof at a ministerial level; appointing Matthew Rycroft a former Foreign Office official, to lead the department (the post has been filled on a temporary basis since his departure precisely to ease the transition to a joint department); and, I’m told, Anne-Marie Trevelyan was informed about the looming merger when she took office.

To the extent that you can merge two departments together without major disruption, this is basically how you would go about it. People talking up the prospect of a U-turn have misunderstood how well-planned and prepared for this merger is. We’re not talking about a policy that has been dreamed up overnight in a fit of absentmindedness, rushed out to distract from the government’s difficulties over coronavirus or its U-turn on free school meals. This is, whatever you think about the merger’s merits, a serious and well-orchestrated bit of work.

Someone who understands that very well is David Cameron. According to several people familiar with his thinking, the former prime minister knows that this merger is now inevitable, and his decision to break five years of silence on contentious issues to criticise it is a recognition that is a process coming to an end.

Cameron had a front-view seat to the years of Conservative retreat and defeat from 1992 to 2005: first as a special advisor, then as an MP and confidant to various leaders, finally as leader himself, when he arrested the years of stagnation and decline. One of the lessons he drew from that period was that political parties do best when previous leaders remain supportive, and if they can’t be supportive, when they remain silent.

He has sought to model his conduct as a departed leader on the way that John Major and William Hague operated during his time as party leader and Prime Minister: making helpful interventions, with Major frequently using his public interventions to prepare the ground for policies Cameron would later announce.

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The careful preparations for its demise reflect a well-known truth that DfID has been under threat for some time. Cameron has tried to lobby quietly to save the department under both Theresa May (under which much of the necessary preparation for this merger began) and under Boris Johnson (who will now complete the work). His statement today is partly about putting those private concerns into the public view for the first time, but is also a marker for the future: a crucial rallying point for the sizeable number of Conservative MPs who support the international aid budget.

The future size of the United Kingdom’s aid spending is being conflated with this merger, but they are not related issues – the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of our GDP is the result of law, which remains unchanged, and to be frank I think it would be difficult in the extreme for this government to do so – and there are more than 43 Conservatives who strongly support the target. Cameron’s tweet is partly about signaling that attempts to unpick that law will not go unopposed.

That’s the politics; what about the policy before us? Ailbhe captures well what the anxieties are that supporters of DfID have about the merger. There is a long history of Conservative governments merging the international aid department with the Foreign Office, while it remains the preferred institutional shape of many governments around the world to have the two functions together.

The benefit of this integration is that, broadly, you are more likely to have strategic unity between the foreign ministry and a country’s aid spending. The downside is you have more strategic unity between the foreign ministry and the country’s aid spending: you are more likely, not less, to support incumbent governments regardless of their human rights record; you are less likely to support initiatives to educate women and girls which might embarrass your foreign minister or your trade representative.

A good example can be found in the United Kingdom’s China strategy. Overseas aid is part of how China projects its strength, and it uses its loanbook as a way of increasing its influence through so-called “debt diplomacy”: countries are made loans they then can’t pay back, which pulls them deeper into China’s orbit and influence.

Should the United Kingdom use its foreign aid budget as a tool to push back against China in the developing world? If you’re of the cast of mind that regards the Xi government’s expansionism as a malign force, yes. The bad news is that if you do that, you are not going to be looking achieving “value for money” from the aid budget or anything like it: you are going to be matching and surpassing China’s offer, and you are likely to be doing so in a way that boosts the position of incumbent governments.

The same calculation plays out if you decide that the foreign aid budget should be an arm of our climate strategy: if you think that British overseas aid should primarily be about facilitating green and sustainable growth, then you might have a very strong value for money argument, but you are not going to be maximising the spread of human rights, education or indeed serving the interests of say, British trade negotiators.

The point here is that there is no magical “better” way of doing things: there are just different trade-offs with different costs and consequences. The point of the Department for International Development is – or rather was – to lean into one side of that trade-off, to focus on eliminating poverty and meeting the global development goals.

Will a merger do the same thing in reverse? Perhaps. It’s important to note that this is the most well-orchestrated merger of the two departments in British history – it’s been done more gradually and carefully than either of the mergers of 1970, when the incoming Conservative government scrapped Labour’s Ministry of Overseas Development, or 1979, when the incoming Conservative government scrapped Labour’s Ministry of Overseas Development.

So there are reasons to believe that the British government may actually achieve its aims this time, rather than lapsing back into the historical pattern, where a merged Foreign Office results in less transparency over aid spending and greater levels of support for incumbent regimes, regardless of their human rights records.

The difficulty – to reiterate what I wrote in February about this looming merger – is that the benefits of that integration do require serious engagement with what you’re trying to do in the brief, which Boris Johnson did not demonstrate today.

He talked about the fact we give ten times more in aid to Tanzania than to states in the West Balkans which are at risk from Russian interference, with no mention of the fact that our giving to Tanzania also has implications for our China strategy. He talked about how it places limits on the ability to secure changes in foreign policy when Foreign Office ministers call for clarity on human rights, while DfID still approves projects in the same country: but the tension between the two departments has generally flowed in the opposite direction, with the Foreign Office seeking to scrap or sideline projects that supports dissent or other unfashionable causes – like ending FGM, say – and DfID backing them.

And that’s the biggest problem not just with this merger but with this government’s objectives more generally: you cannot gain the full benefits of this Whitehall re-organisation or that new policy if the politician at the top of the government is not across the issue, be it schools re-opening, an FCO-Dfid merger or any other issue you care to name. This merger has benefited from careful work done not just under Johnson, but under May. The biggest problem it will face is having to survive and thrive under a Prime Minister who rarely approaches problems methodically and carefully.