Keir Starmer considers ditching Labour pledge to reinstate DfID

<span>Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA</span>
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Keir Starmer is considering dropping a promise to reinstate the Department for International Development (DfID), prompting anger from senior Labour figures and high-profile names in the international development world.

The Labour leader promised last year to restore the department, which was scrapped in 2020 by Boris Johnson, who called it a “giant cashpoint in the sky”.

But Labour sources have told the Guardian Starmer is considering keeping it within the Foreign Office – a move that would cost less but that could lead to aid spending being used as a tool to achieve the UK’s foreign policy goals.

The debate comes amid a series of policy U-turns by Labour, including dropping the idea of a 10% digital services tax and delaying the full rollout of a £28bn green prosperity plan.

Asked last year whether he intended to bring back DfID, Starmer told The Rest is Politics podcast: “Yes, yes, we are. For so many reasons. Not to see the importance of a department that is focused on fixing some of the global problems, that actually unlock a lot of the promise, I just think, is totally misguided … I think the wrongheadedness of not seeing that as a massive asset is huge.”

Labour officials, however, have told the Guardian that re-establishing the DfID is just one option being considered by the party’s leadership. Sources said David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, is pushing for aid spending to remain with the Foreign Office, but to have its own leadership as an agency within the department.

Supporters of the idea say it would be cheaper and less disruptive. But it could also lead to aid spending being used as a bribe to ensure other countries comply with the UK’s foreign policy wishes.

Sarah Champion, the Labour chair of the international development committee, said: “If we want credibility going into the general election, we have to be seen to keep to our promises. One we have been consistent is bringing back a new Department for International Development. It has to have that independence.”

Clare Short, who was Labour’s first international development secretary, from 1997 to 2003, said: “There is much talk of global Britain, but Britain’s influence is shrinking. DfID gave Britain a leading role in helping create a more sustainable world order. It was iniquitous to destroy it.”

Ranil Dissanayake, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said: “If Labour want to draw a line under the chaos of the last three years and show that they are serious about restoring our development programme – and with it our international reputation – they will need to look carefully at the institutional arrangements.

“A separate department, with a remit and approach commensurate to the challenges we face today, is to my eyes much the best way of proceeding, given where we are now.”

A Labour spokesperson said: “Restoring the UK’s leadership in international development is an integral part of Labour’s plan to reconnect Britain with the rest of the world and rebuild trust.

“That’s why the next Labour government will put in place a new model with the independence needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and reinstate the 0.7% aid target as soon as the fiscal environment allows.”