Boris Johnson has called the bluff of rebel Tory MPs demanding a Commons vote on Rishi Sunak’s controversial decision to cut spending on overseas aid.
After months of resisting a vote, ministers sprang a surprise on the rebels by announcing a last-minute change to Commons business with a debate and vote less than 24 hours later.
MPs will now vote to approve a Treasury statement on the cut in spending on aid from 0.7% of national income to 0.5%, a move the chancellor insists is necessary because of the massive bill for COVID-19.
And in a move to head off a backbench rebellion and possible government defeat, the Treasury pledged to restore the cut once emergency spending on the pandemic has eased and the national debt is falling.
But at the same time, Mr Sunak also told MPs that if they vote to restore the aid cut from 2022 there would be “likely consequences for the fiscal situation, including for taxation and current public spending plans”.
The leader of the Tory rebels, former International Development Secretary and Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell, has previously claimed he has the numbers to defeat the government in a vote.
Up to 50 Tories have opposed the decrease in spending, including former Prime Minister Theresa May, but there are already signs that the rebellion may be crumbling.
Pledging to restore the cut, the Treasury has promised a “double lock” on the aid budget and said the government is committed to increasing spending again once it can be afforded.
That would be when the independent Office for Budget Responsibility’s fiscal forecast showed that, “on a sustainable basis, the UK is not borrowing to finance day-to-day spending and underlying debt is falling”.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, former cabinet minister Dame Andrea Leadsom, who had been considered a potential rebel, says she will back the government.
Former rebel Huw Merriman tweeted: “Have looked at the Treasury’s statement on a proposed compromise on UK aid. It’s a sensible and reasonable approach which respects spirit of our 2019 manifesto in a more challenging 2021. I’ll be supporting and voting for it tomorrow.”
But a defiant Mr Mitchell told the Telegraph: “What is proposed may not return Britain to that commitment for decades to come.
“I am urging my colleagues to keep their promise and prevent hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths by voting against tomorrow’s motion.”
The government U-turn on allowing a showdown with Tory rebels followed months of protests by opponents of the cut and an angry demand from Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle on the government last month to end the delay.
Announcing a debate, Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “The motion will be that this House has considered the written ministerial statement relating to the Treasury update on international aid, which was laid before this House on Monday 12th July.
“The debate will be for three hours and the decision will be binding upon her Her Majesty’s Government.”
Labour’s Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire asked Mr Rees-Mogg: “What will be the consequences if the motion is defeated?
“If the House tomorrow votes down the motion on the general debate, if there is a motion, will international aid go back to 0.7% of gross national income in January 2022, yes or no?”
Mr Rees-Mogg replied: “The answer to the last question is yes.”
But also warning of tax rises if MPs defeat the government, he said: “Votes have consequences and if the motion were to be negative that would be a significant consequence for our fiscal situation.
“I would remind the House the over £400billion has had to be spent because of the coronavirus pandemic and yet we remain one the most generous nations in terms of overseas aid.”
The 0.7% commitment was introduced by David Cameron as prime minister and has remained a Tory manifesto commitment ever since, including at the December 2019 election.
Responding to Mr Rees-Mogg, former cabinet minister David Davis warned the government it was risking an imminent court challenge, with campaigners ready to launch a judicial review.
Labour MP Sarah Champion, who chairs the International Development Select Committee, protested that ministers had failed to set out exactly what vote had been granted.
“This is not democracy, it’s playing political games – with deadly consequences for the world’s poorest,” she claimed.