Boris Johnson has started to apply the Brexit instruction manual and many Britons do not like the image that the mirror returns to them. The 0.7% to 0.5% cut in international development aid, contrary to the obligation imposed by the 2015 law, has sparked an unprecedented rebellion among many conservatives. The excuse is the pandemic and the enormous internal public spending that has been necessary to mitigate its effects. The consequence: when the G-7 summit begins in Cornwall this Friday, the UK will be the only one of the rich economies to cut back on foreign aid. The Britain Global that Johnson promised after leaving the EU will be, in the eyes of many critics, a more selfish country with less international influence.
“It is not morally defensible to ease our financial burden at the expense of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world,” said former Conservative Prime Minister John Major. The last five heads of government before Johnson – the Major himself, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May – have joined their voices against a decision that they consider an irreversible blow to the image of the United Kingdom. Along with them, all the opposition parties, the main humanitarian associations, and up to a dozen Democratic US congressmen, who have demanded Joe Biden to speak out against those cuts, just as Washington significantly increases its budget allocation.
A group of rebels from the Conservative Party, led by former Minister for International Development Andrew Mitchell, have forced a debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday about the alleged illegality of the decision. They have had the complicity of speaker (Speaker) of the British Parliament, Lindsay Hole, the first outraged at the Government’s attempts to prevent MPs from dealing with the matter. It has been an “emergency debate”, and the Government has avoided a final vote, but most of the interventions have brought out the colors of the liberal and internationalist Johnson who presumes to defend just causes. “I stood in an election in which my party’s program was proud to uphold the promise of 0.7%,” said former Prime Minister May with noticeable irritation on her face. “They listen to us in the rest of the world not because we are the UK, but because of our actions, and because of how we put our principles into practice. The damage to our reputation from this measure will make us weaker when it comes to arguing any cause ”.
British aid to foreign development will continue to be one of the highest of the developed nations, but the planned cut, close to 5.2 billion euros, translates into a drastic decrease in the allocation for schooling girls, water purification or fights against the slave trade in nations like Somalia, Syria, Yemen or Afghanistan. The disappearance of a specific department for International Development, the integration of its budget into that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the increase in international vaccination aid, has exhausted resources for other projects that require the same or greater urgency.
Waiting for the courts
The Johnson government assures that its decision is temporary, and that it will return to 0.7% as soon as the economy allows it. The International Aid Objective Law, approved in 2015, contemplates in its text an exception: “economic circumstances, and in particular, a substantial change in gross domestic product”. But it is a legally debatable exception, since it refers to the possibility that the objective cannot be met, not to the fact that it is deliberately changed. Moreover, Downing Street has even resisted a commitment to reverse the measure next year, despite the fact that the Bank of England has announced – and the Johnson Government is counting on it – that the economy will grow again strongly in the next year. second half of 2021. Everything indicates that the last word will be that of the British courts.
Beyond the obstinacy of the minister of Economy, Rishi Sunak, to balance the accounts, there is a political reason why Johnson persists in his efforts. Traditionally left-wing voters in the so-called “red wall” in northern England, the same ones who backed Brexit and who have now moved into the ranks of a much more nationalist and populist Conservative Party, back the decision. According to the latest survey of YouGov54% of citizens, compared to 28%, believe that “the Government is right to reduce foreign aid.”
“This decision is immoral for the world and very impractical for the UK”
David Davis, Conservative MP
The problem with those surveys, however, lies in the simplicity of your question. It was paradoxically explained by conservative MP David Davis, one of the most rabid defenders of the UK’s exit from the EU, who, however, has allied himself with the rebels on this occasion: “Of course they prefer that the money be spent on the British schools before those of another country, ”said Davis. “But when you put on the table the real question is when British honesty comes up. When you ask if they want children to die from contaminated water, 76% are against it. This decision is immoral for the world and very impractical for the UK ”.
After more than a year of pandemic and forced confinement, during which Johnson has been able to do little more than to proclaim with speeches and gestures his vision of a new Britain ‘free from the shackles of the EU’ and open to the world, his best chance to shine was to come this weekend. The G-7 summit in Cornwall, which begins on Friday, was the first in-person meeting of the leaders of the world’s richest nations. And the first visit to Europe of the new American president, Joe Biden. His message of global solidarity, his renewed effort to combat climate change, his commitment to extending vaccines to all continents, have been preceded by a huge slap on the wrist from Parliament, which has accused the prime minister of showing the darker side. ugly of Global Britain that Brexit was going to bring with it.