Foreign aid cut: Government bid to avoid Conservative rebellion ‘coming apart at the seams’, says ex-minister Andrew Mitchell

A Conservative ringleader has told Sky News the government’s attempt to avoid a Tory rebellion on foreign aid cuts is “coming apart at the seams” ahead of a crunch vote in the House of Commons.

Later on Tuesday, MPs will vote on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision – in the face of the government’s huge spend on the COVID crisis – to ditch a promise to spend 0.7% of gross national income each year on overseas aid.

After months of disquiet among a group of Conservative MPs over the issue – and the threat of a legal challenge – the government has relented and allowed a Commons vote on what it has described as a “temporary” cut from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income.

In an attempt to avoid defeat, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has set out the conditions under which the foreign aid budget will return to the long-held 0.7% promise.

These are when the independent Office for Budget Responsibility judges that the government is not borrowing for day-to-day spending; and that underlying debt is falling.

Up to 14 potential Conservative rebels are reported to have sided with the government following the chancellor and Number 10’s attempt to reach a compromise.

However Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and one of the ringleaders of Tory rebels on foreign aid, described Mr Sunak’s plan to avoid a Commons defeat as a “fiscal trap”.

“The Treasury proposal, which may have temporarily convinced some of my colleagues, is coming apart at the seams,” he told Sky News.

“It’s clear that it’s a fiscal trap and, if you look back over the last 20 years, there’s only one year in which those circumstances would have seen us implement our promise on the 0.7%.

“So, if this vote goes through tonight and we don’t win it, it is effectively the end of the 0.7%.

“That has huge effects on the number of avoidable deaths there will be around the world, it has a massive impact on Britain’s international reputation.

“And, frankly, it will have quite a strong impact on the Conservative Party who will have been seen to have broken their promise in this very important area and be balancing the books on the backs of the world’s poorest people.”

Mr Mitchell said he was “confident there will be a substantial rebellion” in the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon and hoped it would be “enough” to defeat the government and force ministers into a climbdown.

“After all, we’re not really the rebels, we’re standing by the [Conservative Party] manifesto – it’s the government that’s rebelling against the manifesto,” he added.

“I’m sure people are thinking very carefully about exercising their vote this afternoon.”

Mr Mitchell also dismissed Mr Sunak’s argument that he has to take “difficult decisions” amid the huge spend on battling coronavirus.

“The 0.7% goes up and down with economic performance anyway, so I really don’t think those arguments are going to wash,” he said.

“I’d be very surprised if anyone in the House of Commons seriously thought that was grounds for breaking the promise on which we were all elected just over 18 months ago at the general election.”

The former cabinet minister also described it as “shameful” that a group of philanthropists, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are set to provide £93.5m emergency funding to cover some UK foreign aid cuts.

“It’s shameful that philanthropists have had to divert money from brilliant programmes – for example in combating malaria – to shore up and pass the plate round on the British government’s broken promise,” he said.

“That’s a terrible thing but, also, they are standing up for British taxpayers. Because if the government had got its way and the cuts had gone ahead, all that investment by the British taxpayer will have been wasted.

“And, for example, we would have had to burn or destroy 250 million tablets or vaccines that were meant for those people who were affected by neglected tropical diseases.

“That is the programme that these philanthropists have stepped in to help for just one year only.

“Without them hundreds of thousands, mainly children, would have been maimed or blinded or indeed died as a result.”

Meanwhile, a Whitehall source has told Sky News there is disquiet in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office over the aid cuts.

And Alok Sharma, president of the COP26 climate summit, is said to be concerned a failure to honour the 0.7% commitment will make it harder to get developing countries to sign up to emission targets.

A senior figure among the Tory rebels admitted the compromise proposed by the chancellor has seen their number reduced, but claimed they “remain in the zone” to win.

“I think we have every chance of defeating the government – we’re being conned by the formula,” they said.

“The Chesham and Amersham by-election reminded us that to get a majority we need a wide alliance and that means keeping inside the liberal wing of our voter base.”

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