Sir John Major last night launched a withering attack on Boris Johnson’s slashing of the foreign aid budget while it plans to purchase a new national yacht.
Sir John because the second former prime minister to hit out at the move, after Theresa May voted against a three-line Tory whip for the first time in 25 years during a Commons vote on Tuesday.
MPs voted by a majority of 35 to back the reduced level of aid funding and a new test which critics have warned could mean spending never returns to its target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income.
Speaking in the Commons, Johnson said the UK’s public finances are under a “greater strain than ever before in peacetime history”, adding: “Every pound we spend on aid has to be borrowed and, in fact, represents not our money but money that we’re taking from future generations
But May said the cut meant the government “turns its back on the poorest in the world”.
“This isn’t about palaces for dictators and vanity projects, it’s about what cuts to funding mean – that fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in the world will die,” she said.
“More of the poorest people in the world will die.” @Theresa_May votes against the government’s international aid cut, rebelling against a three-line whip for the first time in her life. pic.twitter.com/Wfni1EfFUc— PoliticsJOE (@PoliticsJOE_UK) July 13, 2021
And Sir John was just as scathing, saying last night that the government should be “ashamed of its decision”.
“It seems that we can afford a ‘national yacht’ than no one either wants or needs, whilst cutting help to some of the most miserable and destitute people in the world,” he said.
“This is not a Conservatism that I recognise. It is the stamp of Little England, not Great Britain.”
The commitment to 0.7 per cent is written in law and restated in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, but was ditched as the government attempted to save money in response to the economic carnage caused by coronavirus.
The 0.5 per cent level means more than £10 billion will be spent on aid this year, around £4.4 billion less than if the original commitment had been kept.
Some would-be rebels were won over by a compromise put forward by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, which sets out tests for restoring the 0.7 per cent level.
The funding will be returned to the promised level if the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) believes the UK is not borrowing to finance day-to-day spending and underlying debt is falling.
Johnson told MPs “we all believe in the principle that aid can transform lives” and voting for the government’s motion “will provide certainty for our aid budget and an affordable path back to 0.7 per cent while also allowing for investment in other priorities, including the NHS, schools and the police”.
“As soon as circumstances allow and the tests are met, we will return to the target that unites us,” he insisted.
Under the tests, aid spending might not return to 0.7 per cent before the next general election, scheduled for 2024.
The existing forecasts run to 2025/26 and in no year is the current budget forecast to be in surplus, while net debt is not forecast to start to fall until 2024/25.
Conservative former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said the conditions to restore funding had only been met once in the last 20 years.
Mitchell, one of the rebel ringleaders, said the plan put forward by the Treasury was “no compromise at all” but instead “a fiscal trap for the unwary”.
“It is quite possible these conditions will never be met,” he said.