Boris Johnson is facing a Tory revolt today after finally agreeing to a vote on slashing foreign aid spending during the pandemic.
The PM has been under fire for months over the decision to cut the international development budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent.
The government has previously dodged putting the issue before the Commons, amid widespread criticism from Conservatives of the £4billion reduction on funding after coronavirus hammered the economy.
However, in a surprise move designed to wrongfoot rebels, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg announced a debate and vote for today.
In a sign of Mr Johnson’s determination to face down the uprising, he will open the debate and it will be closed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak – who has been lobbying hard for support from MPs.
Rebels are hoping up to 50 Tories will line up against the proposals, with sources telling MailOnline it is ‘all to play for’.
Former Cabinet minister and ringleader Andrew Mitchell urged MPs not to be ‘hoodwinked’ by the government’s compromise.
Boris Johnson has been under fire for months over the decision to cut the international development budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent
The government has been trying to win round potential Tory rebels including Theresa May (right) and Andrew Mitchell (left)
The IFS has estimated that the reduction means more than £4billion less a year going on foreign aid
Mr Sunak has been trying to build support for his plan to keep the budget lower for four or five years, until government borrowing stabilises.
However, there could still be significant opposition in the chamber when the debate happens this afternoon.
If the government loses it has promised that spending will return to 0.7 per cent from January next year.
The UK has long been one of the few countries that sticks to the international target of committing 0.7 per cent of national income to aid spending.
The showdown remains a high-stakes gamble, but there is optimism in Government circles that Mr Sunak’s charm offensive, coupled with the element of surprise, might be enough to head off a damaging defeat.
One-time rebel Huw Merriman said: ‘I have looked at the Treasury’s statement on a proposed compromise on UK aid. It’s a sensible approach which respects the spirit of our 2019 manifesto in a more challenging 2021. I’ll be voting for it tomorrow.’
The Treasury slashed the aid budget last year after the pandemic triggered a record Budget deficit of £400billion. Sources said the move was designed help avoid cuts to public services at home.
Opinion polls suggest the cut was supported by the public. But it has angered the aid sector, which has threatened legal action – a prospect that will recede if today’s vote goes through.
At the weekend, billionaires led by Microsoft founder Bill Gates tried to shame the Government over the cut by announcing they would give £100million in emergency funding to save projects threatened by the reduction in UK aid this year.
Mr Sunak’s compromise plan involves a new Treasury framework that will allow international aid spending to return to 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product, from the new lower figure of 0.5 per cent, when it is deemed affordable.
In a sign of Mr Johnson’s determination to face down the uprising, he will open the debate and it will be closed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak (pictured) – who has been lobbying hard for support from MPs
Under a proposed ‘double lock’, this will happen when the Office for Budget Responsibility watchdog considers the Government is no longer borrowing to fund day-to-day spending, and when debt is falling as a proportion of GDP. But it is unlikely that these conditions will be met any time soon.
Mr Mitchell told BBC Radio 4’s Today: ‘It is frankly staggering that the only cut the Government has made is to spending to help the poorest people on the planet in the middle of a pandemic, when this amounts to approximately 1 per cent of the borrowing on Covid in the last year.’
Mr Mitchell said he would rebel, telling Times Radio: ‘I think I’ve only rebelled against my own party and government about three times in the 34 years since I was first elected to the House of Commons, but I shall do so today with conviction and with enthusiasm, because I think it’s the most terrible thing to break our promise.’
But Tory former Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom, writing in the Daily Telegraph, backed the ‘compromise’ put forward by the Treasury.
‘By working together to develop this compromise, I’m confident that we can move forward and focus on the overwhelmingly positive action we take in supporting the world’s most vulnerable,’ she said.
Treasury Chief Secretary Stephen Barclay told Today the economy was ‘bouncing back better than previously forecast’ in response to a suggestion it could be four or five years before the tests are met to allow the 0.7% target to be reinstated.
‘This was a test that was met in 2018/19, so what we are saying is, this is a test that has been met in the past, this is a test that will be determined independently through the measures that the OBR set out, and that the direction of travel, the trajectory, is very positive,’ he said.
A Government source said: ‘We remain committed to overseas development and this sets out a pathway to returning to 0.7 per cent when economic circumstances allow.’
Ministers accept they will not win over committed rebels such as former Cabinet ministers Mr Mitchell and David Davis.
Mr Davis yesterday asked Mr Rees-Mogg: ‘Are we going to have an impact assessment on the number of lives lost as a result of this policy?’
But Government sources believe they may be able to win over enough rebels to stave off defeat.
Mr Rees-Mogg said there would be a three-hour general debate on the issue. He warned: ‘Votes have consequences. And if the motion were to be negative, that would be a significant consequence for our fiscal situation where I would remind the House over £400billion has had to be spent because of the coronavirus pandemic.’
Shadow international development secretary Preet Kaur Gill said: ‘Labour opposes this shameful attempt by the Government to weasel out of their commitments to supporting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable during a global pandemic.
‘The Chancellor’s proposal would lead to an indefinite cut to the aid budget and is not in our national interest.
‘Cuts to international aid will leave the very poorest weaker in the fight against the threats of poverty, climate change and the current pandemic.
‘In return this will have a negative impact on the Government’s ability to keep our country safe and secure, and limit our ability to fight the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.’