Boris Johnson narrowly avoids immediate Conservative rebellion over foreign aid cuts

·4-min read

Boris Johnson has narrowly avoided a rebellion by some of his own MPs over cuts to the foreign aid budget - but there will be a Commons debate on the issue tomorrow.

Thirty Tories, including former prime minister Theresa May and four other ex-cabinet ministers, had backed a rebellion against the £4bn reduction and had hoped to force a vote on the matter.

But Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle ruled the amendment, proposed by Conservative former minister Andrew Mitchell, was "not in scope" of the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency Bill.

Noting that MPs have not had a chance to debate the matter, Sir Lindsay did however say he would accept applications for an emergency debate on the matter.

Mr Mitchell later successfully applied for a debate, telling the Commons: "Parliament has not had its say on this vital matter."

The debate on Tuesday will last for up to three hours, although any vote at the end of it will not be binding on the government.

The proposed amendment had intended to make the government commit to reinstating the 0.7% aid target from next year - from the funding for this agency if it is not met through alternative means.

Under parliamentary procedure, the Speaker gets to decide whether to select amendments and allow votes on them based on the advice of his clerks.

Responding to Sir Lindsay's decision not to select the rebels' amendment, Mr Mitchell accused the government front bench of "treating the House of Commons with disrespect".

Analysis: Speaker plays straight bat on amendment - but then bowls PM a hostile bouncer

He added that "hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths will result".

Britain's aid spending was cut by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last November in what was intended to be a temporary move, but without a vote in parliament.

Mr Sunak told MPs at the time that keeping it at the higher level "cannot be justified to the British people".

The government has said the COVID pandemic has meant difficult decisions for the country's finances.

Explaining his decision in the Commons, Sir Lindsay said: "Amendments and new clauses which are not within the scope of the Bill are out of order."

He added: "In this instance, having taken advice from the House's senior clerks and the officer of Speaker's counsel, I have deemed that new clause four to be outside of the scope of the Bill.

"New clause four is therefore not selected and may not be debated today."

Sir Lindsay said he would accept applications from MPs for an emergency debate on the matter as "the House has not had an opportunity for a decisive vote on maintaining the UK's commitment to the statutory target of 0.7%".

He continued: "I expect that the government should find a way to have this important matter debated and allow the House to formally take an effective decision.

"I should say, on an exceptional basis, I will consider whether to hear any standing order number 24 applications by 5:30 today for debate to be held tomorrow."

Conservative Mr Mitchell told the Commons he believes his amendment would have passed if it had been selected by the Speaker.

"The government front bench are treating the House of Commons with disrespect. They are avoiding a vote on the commitments that each of us made individually and collectively at the last general; election on a promise made internationally.

"And in the opinion of some of the Britain's lawyers, the government is acting unlawfully.

"Had we secured a vote on the new clause tonight, I can assure the House it would have secured the ascent of the House by not less than a majority of nine and probably of around 20 votes.

"In the week of the British chairmanship of the G7, the government's failure to address this issue will indisputably mean that hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths will result."

Responding to Mr Mitchell, the Speaker said he hoped the government will "take up the challenge and give this House its due respect that it deserves".

He told the Commons: "We are the elected members, this House should be taken seriously and the government should be accountable here."

Earlier on Monday, Conservative former minister David Davis said the cut was "not necessary" and "doesn't make economic sense".

He told Sky News: "I don't want to be a member of a government or a supporter of a government that is effectively deciding to lead to tens of thousands of deaths of small children."

Just under £10bn is to be allocated to departments for foreign aid spending in 2021-22, down from more than £14bn in 2019-20.

Labour have also called on the PM to change his mind on the matter, with shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy telling Sky News: "It is short-sighted, it is not in Britain's interest and he could solve this very, very quickly."

But Solicitor General Lucy Frazer defended the government's position on Monday morning, saying Britain was "the third largest donor globally in terms of international aid" last year.

Ms Frazer told Sky News: "But we are in the middle of a pandemic and it is really important that we support the effort here as well."

Polling last year suggested two-thirds of the public backed a cut to foreign aid, due to financial challenges at home.

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