openDemocracyUK: News

‘Worse than a crime’: Johnson cutting aid to ‘pander’ to Red Wall, says Tory MP

Decision to slash aid to poorest countries made for ‘cultural reasons’ not economic ones, says former international development secretary

Adam Bychawski
1 April 2021, 12.55pm
Johnson said aid is treated as a “giant cashpoint in the sky” last year.
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REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo.

The British government is cutting billions from the foreign aid budget in order to court former Labour voters who backed the Conservatives in the last election, according to a senior Tory MP.

Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said the government believed reducing foreign aid would “go down well” with voters in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats in the north of England.

“It’s worse than a crime. It’s a mistake. And the reason it’s a mistake is because it's clearly not being done for economic reasons,” Mitchell told an openDemocracy live discussion on 26 March.

“The £4bn that would be saved by the reduction from 0.7% to 0.5% is 1% of the money that’s been borrowed in the last year, quite rightly, for fighting COVID. 

“One per cent is a rounding error in the Treasury’s balance sheet so it’s clearly not being done for economic reasons. It's been done for cultural reasons. And it's being done because ministers think that it goes down well in the Red Wall seats, which voted Conservative in the last election,” he added.

The British government announced in November that it would slash foreign aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income, cutting £4bn from this year’s budget. The move will deprive hundreds of millions in aid to some of the poorest countries in the world, including conflict zones like Yemen and Syria.

Mitchell said that Boris Johnson’s previous remarks could have encouraged negative public attitudes towards aid. 

“If you have, as you have now, a prime minister, who announces from the despatch box or House of Commons, that the Department for International Development is – and I think I'm quoting him – a huge, great ‘cash machine in the sky’ spewing out taxpayers’ money, you cannot be surprised if people across the country don't think it's a good thing to do,” said the MP for Sutton Coldfield.

“If you say that about it, people say well, ‘I'd rather it was spent on my school or hospital. I don't want to see it being sent overseas’,” said Mitchell. “And that is the view that populist politicians are pandering to. And it’s wrong.”

Mitchell also criticised the belief among ministers that the cuts will appeal to former Labour supporters who voted Conservative in the last election as “extremely patronising”. 

“People in the Red Wall seats are often the first to go and raise money through car boot sales and pub quizzes when there's a famine, or there's a flood in a poor part of the world,” he said.

The government is facing growing criticism from some Conservative MPs who have called on the prime minister to let MPs vote on the plans in Parliament.

“I've spent the last two months organising colleagues to resist this and I can confirm that [the government] might well lose the vote and therefore they don’t want to vote, which is a bit of a bit of a pity really because we were all told that Brexit was about putting more power into the British Parliament,” said Mitchell.

The foreign secretary Dominic Raab said in November that the government would “bring forward legislation in due course” that would give rebel MPs a chance to vote against the plan, but later backtracked.

The government could face a legal challenge if it proceeds with the cuts before seeking Parliamentary approval. A cross-party group of 28 MPs wrote to Raab on Wednesday claiming that the changes are unlawful because the current level of spending is set by the International Development Act 2015.  

The MPs said that a former director of public prosecutions “was clear that the International Development Act 2015 does not make provision to change the 0.7 per cent target itself, only to miss it.”

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