Boris Johnson is defying parliament just to ensure cuts that will be extremely damaging for some of the world's most vulnerable people, writes Terina Hine
From an early age Boris Johnson wanted to be King. Perhaps that explains his contempt for parliamentary democracy - illegally proroguing parliament in the run-up to Brexit in 2019 and now defying the Speaker of the House of Commons who clearly believes MPs should have a meaningful vote on the issue of international aid cuts.
The government is proposing to cut the aid budget by £4 billion - despite the promise to maintain aid spending at 0.7% of GDP being part of their 2019 manifesto commitment and despite it being written into law.
In some of the world’s poorest countries this would translate into devastating cuts at a time when they are struggling to cope with the global pandemic. Refugees will be left without water, projects tackling violence against women and girls will be closed, as will sexual and public health programmes, and wartorn Yemen will see its humanitarian aid cut by a massive 56%.
According to Save the Children, the cuts will result in malnutrition programmes being slashed by a staggering 80%, leaving tens of thousands of children hungry and at risk of starvation. Charities have claimed the aid cuts will be a “deadly force” hitting the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. There will be hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths as a result.
Given Britain's historic role in impoverishing the Global South, its ongoing disastrous military interventions abroad and Boris Johnson's adamance to block prospects for a vaccine patent waiver, cutting the already meagre foreign aid budget is an outrageous decision. Even more so given that the amount of money that will be saved from the cut is tiny in comparison with the billions the government has given away to friends of the Tory party in dodgy contracts over the last year.
Unsurprisingly MPs are not happy, and even usual loyal Tories balk at the impact, with backbencher David Davis describing the cuts as “morally devastating” and Andrew Mitchell, former Conservative international development secretary, claiming Johnson’s actions are both “unethical and unlawful”. Even former PM Theresa May has condemned the proposals.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker, on Monday used parliamentary rules to block an amendment which would have forced a government U-turn on the cuts.
However following his legal ruling, the Speaker issued an angry attack on the government, in which he encouraged the Tory rebels to apply for an emergency debate. They did, and the debate took place Tuesday afternoon. Hoyle also made clear he expected the government to grant MPs a binding vote on the issue. It has after all been six months since the the government proposed the cuts, and it is now seen as a matter of urgency that a meaningful debate take place.
But shortly before the emergency debate began, Downing Street made it clear they have no intention of permitting a vote. A vote they would lose by an embarrassingly large margin for a government with a majority of 80.
Instead, for three hours Parliament witnessed significant numbers of usually loyal Tory MPs attack their own government. But with no ability to change the direction of travel.
Theresa May led the debate, saying the cuts “will have a devastating impact on the poorest in the world”, will undermine the global fund to end modern slavery, and the UK’s standing in the international community.
For this debate to take place in the run-up to the G7 summit is deeply embarrassing, made more so as the UK is isolated among its peers: France is embracing the 0.7% UN target, Germany is set to exceed it, and the US is seeking a $14bn increase in aid spending. It is only the UK, under the government of Boris Johnson and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak who think a global pandemic is the time to slash aid spending. So much for global Britain.
The rebels may live to fight another day. They are considering a legal challenge, are considering a House of Lords intervention and have been encouraging the US president to put pressure on Johnson during the G7 summit. A number of senior Democratic members of the US congress have also been asking the President to urge the UK to think again.
The calls for parliament to have its say will get louder and any sensible government would listen. Andrew Mitchell has pointed out “The executive is accountable to parliament... and that applies in all circumstances, whether the executive is being run by King Charles I or Boris Johnson”. As King Charles found out to his peril, ignoring parliament comes at a price and even an 80 seat majority is not enough protection.
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