ORAt first glance, they have very little in common, other than that they are all Conservative MPs. Theresa May is a former prime minister who has sat in the Commons for nearly a quarter of a century. Anthony Mangnall is a 31-year-old parliamentary rookie elected as MP for Totnes in the 2019 elections. David Davis is a grizzled Brexit champion who give up from the cabinet of Mrs. May. Jeremy Hunt is a softer figure, a remnant who remained in his cabinet until its bitter end and served as foreign secretary. Damian Green, de facto deputy prime minister for a term, is the chairman of a nation of moderate conservative MPs. From the opposite end of the Conservative party is the veteran Thatcherist, social conservative and long-time skeptic of public spending, Sir Edward Leigh, author of titles such as Correct thinking and “Faith, flag and family.”
Together, they span the age range and ideological spectrum of the parliamentary Conservative Party. Usually it would be a difficult feat to unite such a diverse selection of Conservative MPs, but Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have succeeded. This unlikely group has become a rebel with a common cause. They have teamed up with dozens of other Conservative MPs in opposition to the savage cuts being inflicted on the international aid budget. Tomorrow, they will try to force an escalation of the government.
This rebellion began to take shape at the end of last year when the prime minister signed a decision promoted by the chancellor to abandon the commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on international aid. This broke a promise that was supposed to be unbreakable. Not only was it a promise in the conservative election manifesto, the commitment to the UN’s target for aid spending is enshrined in law. I informed you a fortnight ago that opposition to the government among its own parliamentarians was growing with growing awareness of the brutal impact of the sudden and stark withdrawal of humanitarian support to some of the world’s most fragile countries.
Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, who has led the opposition to the cuts, has been organizing the rebel group as he sought an opportunity to exert his strength. Because a cowardly government has repeatedly deflected a parliamentary vote, it needed a piece of legislation that it could use to ambush the prime minister and the chancellor. Mr. Mitchell has found such a vehicle in the advanced invention and research agency bill. It is a spicy irony that this legislation is designed to bring one of Dominic Cummings’ hobby horses to life. The rebels hope to amend the bill by introducing a clause that will force the government to reverse the aid cuts. Parliamentary secretaries have ruled that the clause is in order. A vote will take place whenever Speaker Lindsay Hoyle selects the amendment for debate. With the opposition parties on his side, Mitchell believes there is a very good chance of defeating the government.
Some dissident conservatives emphasize the inhumanity of taking out about a third of the international aid budget in the midst of a pandemic. Others attach importance to the folly of diminishing Britain’s former reputation as a soft power superpower in the realm of international development. There is general agreement with Sir John Major that it is morally indefensible for a country as rich as Great Britain to claim that it can only balance its accounts by inflicting pain on the world’s poor.
Among its many dire effects, the cuts cut support for efforts to combat malaria, polio and HIV. They also mean the withdrawal of funds for life-saving drinking water projects, hunger relief and education. There is no doubt that the destruction of the programs to which Britain had solemnly committed will cause much suffering and tens of thousands of preventable deaths. One of the former cabinet ministers involved in the rebellion, a man who no one thinks of a squishy wringing his hands and bleeding from the heart, says he cannot support the cuts that involve “going around the world killing people.”
The timing of this revolt is shameful for the government whips, because they failed to detect the looming parliamentary ambush, and for the prime minister, because it came to a head in the same week that the UK is hosting the G7 summit. One of the main themes of that meeting is supposed to be the help of rich democracies to less fortunate countries struggling to cope with the pandemic. The rebellion draws more attention to the fact that Britain is cutting its support for developing countries as the rest of the G7 maintains or increases its aid budgets.
The Treasury is the main driver of these cuts. As an institution, it has never been fond of the aid pledge and is headed by a chancellor who spends much of his time trying to build a supportive electorate with his party’s conservative and right-wing media. Your justification for breaking a manifesto promise is “affordability” in times of crisis. This is similar to the argument deployed last week to defend the small size of the package to make up for the two years of missed schooling, a decision that prompted the prime minister’s chosen “recovery of education” commissioner to resign. Affordability is a word we will hear often from the chancellor in the many struggles that lie ahead over spending. It is true that dealing with the coronavirus has been an extremely expensive business. The government expects the final bill to be above £ 400 billion when it has accounted for all the money spent on fighting the virus and plans to support businesses and preserve jobs. The problem for the government is that its gigantic spending in the crisis makes it appear greedy when it resists finding much smaller sums to address other areas of need. They look particularly short-sighted and stony-hearted in relation to help. The cash value of this year’s aid cut stands at around £ 4bn. The impact is devastating for some of the world’s most vulnerable people, but the sum saved is not much more than a rounding error from the UK Treasury. No one can seriously argue that restoring aid will bankrupt Britain.
The revolt has weight. The self-declared rebels include seven former Tory cabinet ministers and eight Tories who chair select committees, including the chairmen of the defense committee and the foreign affairs committee. Every living former prime minister has condemned the government. We can expect to hear from apologists for the cuts that bring up familiar tropes about aid waste. So it is helpful to the rebellion that the amendment was signed by the chairman of the public accounts committee, which watches over public spending, and all the previous presidents who are still in the Commons, Thatcherist Sir Edward Leigh is one of them.
Thirty Conservative MPs have put their names on the rebel amendment so far. That’s less than the 44 it takes to defeat the government, but organizers say they have enough additional names, but they won’t reveal all of them, “so we don’t paint targets on their backs and we make it easier for the whips to pick people out.”
Government agents are spending this weekend wandering around trying to identify potential rebels and convert them with the usual mix of threats and promises. The problem with conservative whips is that Mrs. May and many of the others are too advanced in their careers to be susceptible to flattery or threats. The presence of some newly recruited Conservative MPs among the dissidents tells us that party whips do not instill the terror they once instilled in a parliamentary party that has become habitually rebellious on a number of issues. Still, it is more difficult for managers of government companies to play the “be loyal to the government” card when it is led by Boris Johnson, a man with his own disgusting history.
The government has a decision to make. You can stubbornly refuse to give in, risking humiliating defeat on Monday, or you can decide to walk away with all the dignity you can muster. The compromise the rebels would accept is an ironclad commitment to restore the aid budget starting next year. The alternative is for the Prime Minister and Chancellor to insist on trying to continue cuts that are as unnecessary and indefensible as they are harmful to the poorest people on the planet, Britain’s influence in the world, and our global reputation.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism