The cuts are doing grave damage to the UK’s reputation as a so-called “soft power super power”, writes Sky’s Deborah Haynes.
Embarrassing headlines about a Tory rebellion over foreign aid cuts cannot have been how Boris Johnson envisaged the start of his biggest week on the world stage as prime minister.
With US President Joe Biden and other leaders of the world’s most industrialised powers incoming, Mr Johnson had hoped to be promoting “Global Britain” at a three-day summit in Cornwall.
He said as much in a review of foreign, defence and security policy published in March.
“2021 will be a year of British leadership,” the Integrated Review declared.
It would set “the tone for the UK’s international engagement in the decade ahead, through our presidency of the G7 and the Cornwall summit in June, the Global Partnership for Education, which we will co-host with Kenya in July, and culminating in the 26th UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November, in partnership with Italy”.
Instead Mr Johnson’s own MPs, including a former prime minister, former senior ministers and the heads of select committees, are turning on him in outrage at a decision by his government to reduce aid spending to the world’s poorest in the midst of a pandemic.
The reduction of some £4bn on programmes that provide access to clean water, food, education and healthcare for millions of people will cost lives at a time when need in developing nations is growing because of the health and economic impact of COVID-19.
The seemingly blunt way the cuts have been inflicted, with projects in war zones like Yemen and Syria not spared, is also doing grave damage to the UK’s reputation as a so-called “soft power super power” – its ability to influence and shape the world in its favour.
It leaves the UK appearing small-minded and at odds with all of its G7 partners that are either increasing spending on overseas aid or maintaining their current levels.
The fallout could have been worse.
The prime minister was spared the humiliation of his first defeat in the House of Commons on Monday over an attempted technical amendment designed to force the government to reverse its reduction in the aid target to 0.5% of national income from 0.7%.
But that was because of parliamentary procedure, not the substance of the argument.
The MPs have not given up. One Labour MP told me: “We sit on our hands until the next potential bill comes along.”
They will also have the chance for an hours-long debate on Tuesday over the cut to the foreign aid target, which is enshrined in law and in the Conservative manifesto.
There will be no binding vote following the debate but surely the status quo cannot hold.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker, made clear his “frustration” at the government’s failure to suspend the target indefinitely – though ministers insist that it is just a temporary measure as the economy recovers from the impact of the pandemic – without a vote.
He said he expected ministers to find a way for the Commons to have a chance to decide on the policy.
“I wish and hope, very quickly, that this is taken on board. I don’t want this to drag on,” he said. “If not, we will then look to find other ways in which we can move forward.”