Boris Johnson has been saved from a possible first Commons defeat since the Conservatives won an 80-seat majority in 2019, after an amendment on overseas aid cuts was rejected on Monday. But he could still face another vote on the issue – even as early as Tuesday.
What is the rebellion about?
It follows the announcement last year that the amount of money spent on overseas aid would be cut from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%, amounting to a reduction of about £4bn. Ministers said this was necessary as a temporary measure – though they did not say how long – because of the economic damage from Covid.
What are the objections?
The 0.7% figure is established in law and was part of the 2019 Conservative manifesto, and so opponents believe it is a broken promise. They also stress the enormous effect the cuts will have on some of the world’s most vulnerable people, amid the continued impact of Covid. For example, UK aid to Yemen and Syria will halve, and funding for girls’ education will be cut by 40% on average. Aid agencies have said the cuts will leave 100,000 people without water in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, the world’s largest refugee settlement. They argue the cuts will also greatly reduce the UK’s diplomatic influence in the post-Brexit world.
What happened on Monday?
Opponents had expected a direct vote on the aid cut, as the 0.7% figure is in law. But the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which took over aid responsibilities after it absorbed the Department for International Development last year, has argued that as the cut is temporary it is in the scope of the existing legislation, and so no vote is needed. Tory rebels had been searching for an alternative parliamentary vehicle, and tabled an amendment to a bill being considered on Monday about the creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, a Dominic Cummings-inspired research body. The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle took the advice of clerks that the amendment was not within the scope of the main bill, and so was not allowed.
But Hoyle said that because the 0.7% target is set out in law, ministers “should find a way” for a Commons debate and vote on the issue, and he could grant an emergency debate on Tuesday. If such a debate does take place on Tuesday, it would be under so-called standing order 24 (SO24) rules, as seen at the peak of the Brexit debates under Theresa May. Motions passed under SO24 debates are not binding on the government.
Is it a victory for the government?
Yes and no. The rejection of the amendment will please ministers, but the danger has not gone, with a vote via another means seemingly inevitable, possibly before Johnson hosts fellow members of the G7 club of nations in Cornwall this weekend. In a point of order in the Commons, the lead rebel Andrew Mitchell said they were very confident of winning a vote on the issue, by up to 20 votes. Johnson could just ignore the result of an SO24 vote, but this would not be straightforward.
Who are the rebels?
Thirty Tories are among MPs to formally back the now defunct amendment, and they are a very mixed bag, ranging from former ministers such as Mitchell, Jeremy Hunt, Tobias Ellwood, Johnny Mercer and David Davis, to senior backbenchers including Bob Neill and Bob Blackman and even a 2019 intake member, Anthony Mangnall. Theresa May is a signatory, and all other living ex-prime ministers – John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – also oppose the aid cut.
Why is the government doing this?
Mainly, it seems, because it thinks it will be popular. Polling has shown about two-thirds of voters back the move, and there is a particular focus on voters in newer Conservative seats in places such as the north of England and Midlands, who are viewed as more likely to want to focus spending on the UK.