File photo: the House of Commons in London. Reuters
British MPs will vote on Tuesday on a proposal to slash the foreign aid budget, with the Conservative government hoping to head off a rebellion by its own lawmakers.
The government argues that it needs to suspend a legal obligation to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on foreign aid to help rein in public borrowing, which has reached levels not seen since World War II thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
A snap vote was announced on Monday with the government hoping a pledge to reinstate the 0.7 percent commitment once borrowing is brought down will win over the rebels, who had looked capable of derailing the proposal.
Former international development minister Andrew Mitchell said last month he had the support of at least 30 Tory MPs to back an amendment that would have blocked the aid cut, but the speaker did not select it to be voted on.
Former prime minister Theresa May was one of those threatening to vote against the law.
The government has since attempted to win over some of the rebels, and has a working majority of 85 within the House of Commons, so is optimistic of winning the vote.
The commitment to maintain the 0.7 percent benchmark was included in the 2019 Conservative election manifesto.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has since said that unforeseen pandemic spending meant he would try to cut the budget from £15 billion to £10 billion.
- 'Shameful' -
Johnson opened Tuesday's debate by telling MPs that there was common ground on the issue.
"We believe in the power of aid to transform millions of lives," he added.
"This is not an argument about principle, the only question is of when we return to 0.7 percent."
Johnson pointed out that Britain had spent more than £400 billion on dealing with the pandemic at home and that "there must inevitably be consequences for other areas of public spending".
The decision has triggered a barrage of criticism at home and abroad, warnings about its effect on humanitarian projects and the damage to Britain's reputation.
The cut would also throw into doubt Britain's commitment to environmental protection, according to Nick Mabey of climate think tank E3G.
Britain would go into November's UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow with no leverage, said Mabey.
He told AFP that Britain would struggle to persuade richer countries to fund further climate action, and its aid cut would make it difficult for poorer countries to afford to pay for any new pledges.
Preet Kaur Gill, from the main opposition Labour Party, said her colleagues would vote against "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 proposal "would lead to an indefinite cut to the aid budget and is not in our national interest", she added.
Tory rebel Mitchell said he would still vote against the bill, telling BBC Radio 4 it was "staggering" that foreign aid was the only cut the government was proposing.
He pointed out that the amount saved would only be one percent of the borrowing on Covid in the last year.