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Paul Vallely: Aid cut could come back to bite PM

23 July 2021

It may prove to be costly for the Tories at the polls, says Paul Vallely


YOU would be wrong if you thought that the row over cuts to Britain’s international aid budget was over. True, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak pulled a crafty manoeuvre to snuff out the rebellion of Conservative backbenchers who were appalled at the Government’s decision to slash aid to the world’s poor at the height of a pandemic (News, Leader Comment 16 July). But the cuts are now to be challenged in court by a charity that lost its funding to help pregnant women displaced from their homes by Islamist terrorists in Mozambique.

The charity’s lawyers will argue that Britain’s 0.7-per-cent aid commitment is enshrined in a law that has not been revoked by Parliament. This may just be ruled a legal nicety. But we can, at least, rely on a judge to be both more independent and perceptive than the backbenchers who capitulated to the Johnson-Sunak manipulation.

At one point, it looked as though there were 50 Tory MPs who would rebel against the Government on aid. But enough of them bought the line that the cuts were only temporary, and would be restored just as soon as finances improved.

Whether they were fooled or complicit is unclear. But Mr Sunak laid down conditions — on borrowing for day-to-day spending, running a current budget deficit, sustainability, and the ratio of underlying debt to GDP — which set the bar so high that the cuts could remain in place for years. The conditions that Mr Sunak set have been met only once by a Conservative government since 1990.

Those who changed their mind and voted for the cuts either had the wool pulled over their eyes or shamelessly thought that the cuts would be popular with voters. Perhaps they remembered the opinion poll last November which suggested that 66 per cent of the public agreed with the cut. But a more recent YouGov poll, for the Development Engagement Lab run by UCL and Birmingham University, shows that, last month, support for the pre-cut level of aid had risen to 53 per cent of voters.

Academic research suggests that the way in which a pollster’s question is worded can affect the answer the public give. When asked last month about the aid cuts, the number of people who disapproved rose when the question mentioned the impact on Britain’s reputation abroad. It rose still further when the questioner mentioned the pandemic or the fact that the Conservative manifesto promised to maintain the 0.7 per cent.

But support for aid may also have risen because the media have spelled out what the cuts will mean. They will stop solar power being installed in operating theatres in the Congo, axe programmes to rescue child labourers in Bangladesh, end assistance for carers of disabled children in Nepal, and deny clean water to Rohingya refugees. The Government had couched its plan in statistics. Stories of the individuals who suffer bring home the reality.

There may be something else. The Conservative rebel Andrew Mitchell reminded his fellow Tories that Chesham and Amersham — where the party lost a safe seat recently — has the biggest Christian Aid group in the country. There are 40 other seats in the Tory heartlands where ditching the aid pledge could have similar consequences. Cutting aid could turn out not to have been so clever politically after all.

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