Boris Johnson has seen off one of the biggest Tory rebellions of his premiership after MPs have voted to cut overseas aid until the UK can balance the books.
Under plans drafted by chancellor Rishi Sunak, the landmark pledge to spend 0.7% of national income on international development will be suspended until the budget is in surplus and public debt is falling as a percentage of GDP.
MPs voted by 333 votes to 298 in favour of the new plan to cut the spending to 0.5%, which had been opposed by former PM Theresa May and a string of senior Tories.
In the end, 24 Tory MPs voted against the government, including May and other former ministers.
Among the rebels were Andrew Mitchell, David Davis, Stephen Crabb, Jeremy Hunt, Damian Green, Tobias Ellwood, Steve Brine, Tim Loughton, Johnny Mercer, Karen Bradley and Harriett Baldwin
The decision means that the UK will spend £4bn a year less on aid than it would have, possibly for the next five years.
Keir Starmer had joined rebel Conservatives in warning that the new tests were so stringent they would effectively mean that the manifesto promise would be delayed “indefinitely”.
The flagship promise to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid was first enacted by David Cameron and Theresa May and was a key pledge in the Tory manifesto of 2019.
But the PM and Sunak said that the law binding them to the pledge had a key loophole, which states that it could be suspended whenever there was a “substantial change” in national income like that during the pandemic.
The Treasury’s proposal means that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) will trigger the return to full aid spending only once it has determined the two tests have been met.
On current forecasts, the OBR do not predict debt will start falling until 2024/25, after the next general election. The watchdog also has no timeline at all for a return to a surplus for the public finances.
The 35-vote majority followed an impassioned debate led by Boris Johnson and closed by Sunak, both of whom insisted the UK would return to the commitment when circumstances allowed.
Johnson had justified the aid cuts by claiming that the cost to the economy of the Covid pandemic had meant domestic spending had to be prioritised.
“We must face the harsh fact that the world is now enduring a catastrophe of a kind that happens only once a century,” he had said.
“Everyone will accept that when you’re suddenly compelled to spend £407 billion on sheltering our people from an economic hurricane never experienced in living memory, there must inevitably be consequences for other areas of public spending.”
Former cabinet ministers including ex international development secretary Andrew Mitchell had all spoken out against the plans, arguing they would cost lives in poor nations ranging from Yemen to Bangladesh.
Mitchell pointed out that Chesham and Amersham, where the Tories recently lost a safe seat, has the biggest Christian Aid group in the country,
“Anyone who thinks this is not affecting our party’s reputation is living in cloud cuckoo land.
“There’s an unpleasant odour wafting out under my party’s front door. This is not who we are, this is not what global Britain is.”
But Tory rebels, who said they had had the numbers to defeat the government just a few weeks ago, saw their support cut after Sunak came up with his plan late on Monday night to directly link the 0.7% spending with explicit fiscal targets.
In what appeared to be a classic parliamentary ambush designed to persuade unhappy backbenchers to either abstain or vote with the government, the chancellor’s plan was aided by direct appeals for loyalty from the PM.
Former premier May voted against her party on a three line whip for the first time in her 25 years in parliament.
“As a prime minister I suffered at the hands of rebels, I know what it is like to see party colleagues voting against their government,” she said.
“We made a promise to the poorest people in the world, the Government has broken that promise. This motion means that promise may be broken for years to come.”
She revealed that Sunak had told her in talks last night that it would be “four to five years” before the 0.7% pledge was met again.
After the vote, the chancellor insisted that if the economy bounced back from the pandemic quicker than previous OBR estimates, there was room for a speedier return to the full amount of aid.
A string of charities swiftly condemned the vote.
Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond, the UK network of international development organisations, said: “Today, MPs broke their promise to the electorate to address global challenges and turned their backs on those in need.”
Romilly Greenhill, UK director of the anti-poverty One Campaign, said: “Today’s result is a needless retreat from the world stage, enforced by the Treasury, at the exact moment the UK should be showing leadership and stepping up to the greatest global crises in our lifetimes.
“It’s akin to cutting the RAF during the Battle of Britain.”
Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB chief executive, said: “The outcome of today’s vote is a disaster for the world’s poorest people.”
During the debate, David Davis said the planned “double lock” on a return to 0.7% was “deceptive”.
“I consider myself an economic Thatcherite and yet when I come to choose between money and lives, I always choose lives,” he added.
Former PM Sir John Major issued a statement that “the government has blatantly broken its word, and should be ashamed of its decision”.
“It seems that we can afford a ‘national yacht’ that no-one either wants or needs, whilst cutting help to some of the most miserable and destitute people in the world..
“This is not a Conservatism that I recognise. It is the stamp of Little England, not Great Britain.”
Here is the full list of Conservative MPs who voted against the government motion:
David Amess (Southend West)
Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire)
Peter Bottomley (Worthing West)
Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands)
Steve Brine (Winchester)
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham)
Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire)
David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)
Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East)
Roger Gale (North Thanet)
Damian Green (Ashford)
Simon Hoare (North Dorset)
Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border)
Jeremy Hunt (South West Surrey)
Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire)
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)
Theresa May (Maidenhead)
Johnny Mercer (Plymouth, Moor View)
Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)
Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North)
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton)
Mark Pawsey (Rugby)
Bob Seely (Isle of Wight)
Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling)