LITTLE England, not Great Britain.
This was the conclusion of that notorious Leftie, John Major, following the UK Government’s controversial move this week – backed by a 35 Commons majority – to cut taxpayer generosity to the world’s poorest.
In fact, Sir John was joined by all the members of the ex-Prime Ministers’ Club – David Cameron, Theresa May, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair – who have bemoaned the decision taken by their successor in Downing St.
Boris Johnson explained that, given how the country was spending £407 billion on battling the pandemic, “wrenching decisions” had to be taken; some things had to give and one was the size of the aid budget.
“Every pound we spend on aid has to be borrowed and, in fact, represents not our money but money that we’re taking from future generations,” the PM declared.
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Indeed, in November when the cut was first announced, he had the clear backing of the public, who, 66% to 18% of those who expressed a view, supported cutting the overseas aid budget.
When the row initially broke, Mr Johnson suggested the cut of a third – £4.4bn, leaving the annual aid budget at £10bn – could well be a one-off and the 0.7% level of Gross National Income[GNI] would be reinstated in 2022; it’s now 0.5%. He dismissed criticism of his decision as “Leftie propaganda”.
Opponents of the cut increasingly demanded a Commons vote because, with 50 Tory rebels onboard, they were confident of victory and reinstating the 0.7% level next year.
Intriguingly, the PM remained tight-lipped on a vote. But things were stirring behind the scenes at Westminster.
Government whips began an Operation Fear exercise, focusing on the most fiscally conservative of the Tory rebels. Given Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s commitment to a spending splurge to get the country through the pandemic, the risk of future tax rises was raised.
Fiscally conservative minds were duly focused; raising taxes ahead of a general election is not good for electoral business; disgruntled Tory voters could stay at home; seats could be lost. Consequently, the Conservative rebel ranks broke; 14 sided with their leader.
Mr Sunak spoke, disingenuously, of a “compromise” being offered.
That the Government, naturally, was committed to returning to the 0.7% aid level but only when economic circumstances allowed ie if the Office for Budget Responsibility believed the UK was not borrowing to finance day-to-day spending and underlying debt was falling.
It has been pointed out such conditions have only been met once in 20 years, meaning a return to 0.7% will not happen in this Parliament and, in fact, the cut has been baked into Government policy for the foreseeable future.
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No doubt, Messrs Sunak and Johnson regard the Commons aid cut vote a nifty strategic triumph because, with public spending cuts in the pipeline, a fiscal reality has also been baked in; Tory MPs opposed to such cuts will have to consider the prospect of higher taxes given the eye-watering levels of borrowing the Government is already committed to.
To put it another way, the Chancellor has effectively acquired a Commons majority for public spending cuts ahead.
Despite the £4.4bn reduction in overseas aid, Britain remains a generous donor; £10bn, 0.5% of GNI remains proportionately much more than most countries such as, according to official figures for pre-pandemic 2019, America[0.16%], China[0.36%], Russia[0.03%], Japan[0.29%], Canada[0.27%], France[0.44%] and Italy[0.24%].
But it is less than Germany[0.6%], Norway[1.02%], Sweden[0.99%], Luxembourg[1.05%], India[0.65%] and Turkey[1.15%].
Understandably, campaigners were outraged by the UK cut.
The anti-poverty One Campaign said: “The real losers of this vote are the three million children who will no longer be able to go to school, the half a million children who will die from preventable diseases and the three million women and children who will go hungry.
“This is also a retreat from British values and sends a sorry message about the type of country the UK wants to be.”
In his response, Sir Keir Starmer pointed out how cutting aid – the only G7 country to do so – would reduce Britain’s soft-power influence and create a vacuum, which would be filled by China and Russia.
“Development aid,” the Labour leader argued, “reduces conflict, disease and people fleeing from their homes. It is a false economy to pretend this is some sort of cut that doesn’t have consequences.”
Indeed, the Government has been warned it could harm the drive to tackle climate change.
Alok Sharma, the Cabinet member who leads on matters COP26, was said to have privately told Mr Johnson he was unhappy with the aid cut. But he voted for it anyway.
The International Centre for Climate Change and Development said: “Rishi Sunak has cut him[Sharma] off at the legs. He will not have any credibility when speaking about finance as his own Chancellor isn’t delivering what he is asking other countries to deliver.”
First-time rebel Mrs May also pointed out, apart from everything else, maintaining overseas aid had been a manifesto pledge. “We made a promise to the poorest people in the world; the Government has broken that promise.”
Mr Cameron branded Boris’s decision a “grave mistake” as so-called Global Britain’s help was, at this time of international crisis, “needed more than ever”.
Sir John insisted the Government should be “ashamed” of its decision, noting: “We can afford a ‘national yacht’ no-one either wants or needs whilst cutting help to some of the most miserable and destitute people in the world. This is not a Conservatism I recognise. It is the stamp of Little England, not Great Britain.”
The decision to cut overseas aid is, as the ex-PMs’ club has pointed out, shameful, shameless and short-sighted. Quite a combination but one Boris pulled off with his usual political aplomb.