LLess than a month ago, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak looked down the barrel of a political pistol. His plan to cut UK foreign aid spending from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5% met defeat. At least 45 Conservative MPs, all elected, like Johnson and Sunak, promising to keep the 0.7% aid level, pledged to reverse the cut.
On Tuesday, only 24 of the Conservatives rebelled. The government won by 35. So the cut now holds. Furthermore, it represents the foreseeable future. Sunak managed to stop the revolt by promising to restore the 0.7% figure when, “sustainably”, the government is no longer borrowing to pay current spending and underlying debt is falling. This is a promise from the Neverland Bank.
Theresa May told MPs that Sunak had informed her that the return to 0.7% could come in four to five years. That would be after the next election. There are no guarantees that this week’s promise will be in the conservative election manifesto. Even if it is, that weasel phrase – “on a sustainable basis” – means that the Treasury will be able to decide. Indeed, a change of government will be necessary before Britain returns to the aid spending commitment of 0.7%.
So the Downing Street scoundrel has gotten away with it again, up to a point. Due to Covid, the government had to reverse its orthodoxies to borrow amounts of cash. To sweeten that pill, and with an eye toward succession, Sunak took the ax from a promise that many in the party hate, and which is also unpopular with a large part of the public. No other expenses have been treated in this way. It is not part of a serious tax strategy. It is pure political pantomime, but at the expense of the world’s disadvantaged people.
However, it can be both a mistake and a misfortune. Although Johnson and Sunak won the battle this week, they did so at a price. Over time, the argument can contribute to the loss of the war. This may seem like an illusion. It is not. There are many reasons.
The first is that the clandestine revolt was not negligible, although it failed. Riots always reflect important differences, and this was a heavyweight affair. In addition to May, it involved runner-up in the last leadership contest, Jeremy Hunt, five other former cabinet ministers, seven other former ministers, and six select committee chairs. In short, it marks the resurgence, after Johnson’s purge of the pro-Europeans in 2019, of a powerful new coalition of anti-Johnson Tories from a single nation.
Its importance increases because it was not a revolt of usual suspects. The political mapping of Conservative MPs is an inexact science, but secondary revolts against Johnson have often involved two main groups. One is mostly right-wing libertarians. They have often been veterans of the Brexit revolts against May, but they also include a significant amount of the 2019 intake. They are now focused on resisting Covid regulations and pushing Johnson towards his reckless “freedom day” next week. .
The other main group is China’s hawks, ranging from some imperial neocons to human rights defenders. These MPs opposed Johnson on Huawei and backed an amendment to the trade bill in January targeting China’s genocide against the Uyghurs. There is some overlap between these two groups, but also many differences in personnel. Now there is a third group to add to the Venn diagram, in the form of those of a single nation.
It all adds up to a divided conservative party that is more difficult to manage than the triumphant aftermath of the December 2019 electoral victory implied. That difficulty is now about to deepen, not only on issues that are already familiar, but also in new ones.
After the loss of Chesham & Amersham by choice, one of them will be planning and housing, where the government must soon choose whether to shelve its deregulation plans or face more riots. Another is whether to maintain the £ 20 universal credit increase, which will be withdrawn at the end of September. They will both send great signals.
Behind all of this loom unsolved Covid issues, post-Covid public spending, and how to pay for it. Sunak faces a fall of defining choices: on ending support for the Covid-era economy, on departmental spending priorities, and on tax and loan options to balance the books. You cannot take the party for granted in either of these cases.
Removing the triple lockdown on pensions would be a problem that, in electoral terms alone, would make cutting the aid budget look easy. Responding to the demands of conservatives in the north for a radical investment in the seats won from Labor in 2019 must also be balanced against the growing threat to conservative middle-class seats in the south from the liberal Democrats.
The failed riot for aid was not a stream of water. It is part of a complex, volatile and ongoing political realignment in a Britain struggling to renew forms of majority common purpose. Several of Tuesday’s best speeches, including those by Hilary Benn, Andrew Mitchell and Rachel Reeves, highlighted how the aid cut, the Euro Cup finals and the Covid exit raise a question about who we are as a nation. Johnson has responded badly to all of them. It is an indication of why it will fail in the end.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism