Boris Johnson has been spared an immediate Tory revolt over cuts to Britain’s overseas aid budget after a Commons move to reverse the decision was ruled out of order by the Speaker.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle ruled the proposed change to the Bill setting up the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) – which would have forced the new body to make up the funding to meet the target to spend 0.7% of national income on aid – was outside the scope of the legislation.
However he rebuked ministers for not giving the Commons the opportunity to vote on the decision to suspend the 0.7% goal, which was enshrined in legislation.
He indicated he would consider applications for an emergency debate on the issue on Tuesday.
“I expect that the Government should find a way to have this important matter debated and to allow the House formally to take an effective decision,” he said.
“I should say that, on an exceptional basis, I will consider whether to hear any Standing Order Number 24 applications at 5.30pm today, for a debate to be held tomorrow.”
Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell, who led the rebellion, said the Government could have lost by up to 20 votes if there had been a division, despite a working majority of more than 80.
“The Government frontbench is treating the House of Commons with disrespect,” he told MPs.
“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 Britain’s leading 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 assent 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.”
The Speaker’s ruling piles pressure on ministers to come forward with assurances about the restoration of the 0.7 target – which was cut to 0.5% due to the pandemic – if they are to avoid a potentially damaging defeat.
The embarrassment for the Government would be particularly acute as Mr Johnson is due to host the G7 summit in Cornwall later this week.
The Tory rebels include his predecessor Theresa May and the former cabinet minister David Davis.
Former prime ministers David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Sir John Major have all also spoken out against the aid cut.
Responding to Mr Mitchell, Sir Lindsay said that MPs should not be “taken for granted” and he urged ministers to give the House “its due respect that it deserves”.
“We are the elected members, this House should be taken seriously and the Government should be accountable here,” he said.
“I wish and hope, very quickly, that this is taken on board. I don’t want this to drag on.
“If not, we will then look to find other ways in which we can move forward.”
A Government spokesman said they remained committed to returning to the 0.7% commitment “when the fiscal situation allows”.
“The impact of the pandemic on the public finances has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions on how we spend taxpayers’ money, including temporarily reducing the aid budget to 0.5% of GNI (gross national income),” the spokesman said.
“The Government is acting compatibly with the International Development Act 2015, which explicitly envisages that there may be circumstances where the 0.7% target is not met.”