UK’s Johnson faces parliamentary rebellion over foreign aid cuts

Dozens of Conservative MPs are reportedly readying to vote against the PM after the gov’t cut foreign aid last year.

Johnson's Conservative government in November said it would reduce spending on aid by billions of pounds this year to help mend coronavirus pandemic-battered public finances [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]
Johnson's Conservative government in November said it would reduce spending on aid by billions of pounds this year to help mend coronavirus pandemic-battered public finances [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing a possible parliamentary rebellion over his government’s contentious decision to slash the United Kingdom’s foreign aid budget.

Breaking a manifesto promise, Johnson’s Conservative government in November said it would reduce spending on aid by billions of pounds this year to help mend coronavirus pandemic-battered public finances.

But the decision to turn back on a legally enshrined commitment – 0.7 percent of gross national income (GNI) on international development – enraged charities and the opposition.

Dozens of Conservative MPs also oppose the move, including former prime minister Theresa May; they say shrinking the outlay to 0.5 percent of GNI will leave the UK as the only G7 member which fails to meet the 0.7 percent target.

The top five countries receiving UK aid in 2019 were Pakistan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yemen and Nigeria, with almost all the money going to countries in Africa and Asia, according to official data published last September.

Britain spent 1.5 billion pounds on humanitarian assistance mostly in Yemen, Syria and Bangladesh, government statistics showed.

Monday’s possible vote

The political drama comes as Johnson prepares to host G7 leaders at a summit in Cornwall, southwest England, which begins this week.

The rebels believe they have the numbers to inflict a humiliating defeat on Johnson when Parliament votes on related legislation later on Monday, but the vote will only happen if the speaker of the House of Commons allows it, which is not guaranteed.

“The eyes of the world are truly upon us,” MP Andrew Mitchell, a former international development secretary who is spearheading the rebellion, wrote in The Guardian.

“In this moment Britain is found wanting, because we have removed a foundational piece of our own global leadership,” he added, noting it was the only G7 country cutting aid.

“We are doing it at a time when both the need for aid around the world is rising and when other countries are stepping up.”

Mitchell said the cuts are already having a “devastating effect” on projects around the world.

“In crisis situations, these cuts will result in hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths,” he added.

‘Life and death issue’

November’s decision means about £4 billion ($5.6bn) less is being spent on programmes across the world.

Meanwhile, emergency pandemic support measures have seen the UK’s annual borrowing rise to the equivalent to 14.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) – the highest level since World War II.

The government has said it will return foreign aid spending to 0.7 percent of GNI – a broader measure than GDP – “when the fiscal situation allows”.

Opinion polling conducted late last year suggested the decision had the backing of two-thirds of Britons.

But critics fear the cut could become more permanent, and argue its effect is too severe, even temporarily.

Alongside May, other former prime ministers including David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major have decried the cut.

“It’s a life and death issue, we’re actually deciding who lives and who dies,” Brown told BBC radio on Monday. “It makes absolutely no economic sense, but particularly no moral sense.”

Brown called government claims that the public supported a temporary cut “a myth”.

“I think people know that while charity begins at home, it should never end at home, because we’ve got responsibilities and benefits from working with the rest of the world.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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