Yemen remained among the worst humanitarian crises in the world, said James Cleverly, junior Foreign Office minister responsible for the Middle East, in answer to an urgent question from fellow Tory Andrew Mitchell. Two-thirds of the population were in need of assistance. 47,000 people were living in famine conditions and a further 16.2 million were at risk of starvation.
After an opening like this, you rather expected Cleverly to explain why the UK government was increasing its overseas aid budget to the country. Instead he chose to justify cutting it by over 50% during the next financial year. Yemen would be getting “at least” £87m of the £214m it was currently receiving. Indeed if it played its cards right, the minister might even bung in an extra £100,000 as a goodwill gesture. The truth was that the UK had already been doing too much to help Yemen and it was time to step back and let the country fend for itself.
Cleverly may be one of the most inappropriately named MPs, but even he could see the fault lines in his argument and he spent much of the next 45 minutes fending off hits from both his own and the opposition benches. First in was Mitchell, who questioned the morality of the fifth-wealthiest country in the world cutting aid to one of the poorest in the middle of a pandemic. “This is not who we are,” he said. Unfortunately, it is.
That was only the start. The shadow international development secretary, Preet Kaur Gill, wondered if it was any coincidence that we were cutting aid while selling arms to the Saudis who were using them on the Yemenis. What goes around comes around, I suppose. David Davis and Damian Green reminded the government that it had been elected on a manifesto of donating 0.7% of GDP in overseas aid and that any cuts to the budget could only be passed by a vote in the Commons. This wasn’t just a matter of trust; it was also a moral duty.
By now Cleverly was cutting a thoroughly broken figure at the dispatch box and could only repeat in a dull monotone the feeble lines his advisers had prepared for him. Labour had never donated more than 0.51% of GDP in foreign aid, so they could shut up for a start. It didn’t seem to have occurred to him that having previously done the right thing by donating 0.7% was no excuse for doing the wrong thing now.
Time and again he repeated that the £87m to Yemen was “a floor not a ceiling” but no one really believed him. Once the money had been cut, there wasn’t a cat in hell’s chance of it being revised upwards when the economic situation improved. Rather, MPs from all sides reckoned the government was taking a calculated risk in assuming that most Tories would be more interested in money spent at home than aid to help hundreds of thousands of Yemenis stay alive. And if all it took was for Cleverly to be made to look a bit hopeless and untrustworthy for just under an hour, then it was a price worth paying.
Next up in the chamber was Matt Hancock, who had come to give an entirely unnecessary update on coronavirus, given that almost everything he had to say was already in the public domain. But the health secretary is now living his best life and is determined to milk it for all its worth. Not so long ago, every Commons statement was fraught with danger for Door Matt. An opportunity for his opponents to raise awkward questions about the UK death toll and the failures of test and trace.
But the success of the vaccination programme has changed everything. While the Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines are providing unexpectedly high levels of immunity to the virus in older members of the population, they are granting the health secretary near-total immunity from all awkward questions. No one wants to focus on negative stuff, such as the death rate, when there is finally some hope on the horizon. Even the missing person with the Brazilian variant is merely a nuisance rather than a serious cause for concern.
It may still all go tits up, of course, with a mutant strain that is resistant to the vaccine, but for now Matt is just happy to ride the wave. More disturbingly, the change in fortunes has released his inner bumptious child. He displays little graciousness in being bailed out by the scientists: rather, he increasingly acts as if he alone has saved the UK and is irked when MPs aren’t sufficiently grateful to him. Still, if that’s what it takes to beat the pandemic, I guess most of us can live with it. For a while at least.