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Rishi Sunak certainly knows his audience. As he tried to cajole, encourage and generally woo Tory MPs thinking of rebelling on overseas aid cuts, the chancellor quoted the Bible. “Charity is patient, is kind,” he said, citing Corinthians 13:4.
The message was subtle but clear: be patient, and one day, someday, soon I’ll restore the full kindness of the pledge to spend 0.7% of national income on development.
The warm words didn’t work on vicar’s daughter Theresa May, who rebelled against her party’s three line whip for the first time in her 25 years in parliament. But they were enough to help peel off a large number of potential rebels, many of whom consider themselves kindly Christians.
Sunak was far too smart to resort to the cruder, non-Biblical formulation that “charity begins at home”. Yet that’s undeniably the sentiment that both he and Boris Johnson also appealed to in other Tory MPs, as they emphasised the need to focus resources on the UK’s pandemic response.
The PM even risked a reference to “sheltering our people” from the economic fallout of Covid, the implication being that those overseas who were not “our people” would inevitably take second place.
That may sound like a cynical dogwhistle to some, but there are plenty in government who point to polls showing how popular cuts to aid are right now. YouGov recently found that 54% of Britons agreed with reducing amounts spent on overseas aid (28% said it was wrong). Some 52% say they exclusively give to charities that help only those in the UK.
Still, while Johnson bulldozed his way through the arguments at the opening of the Commons debate, Sunak deployed a lighter touch as he closed it. Replacing strong-arm tactics with strong charm tactics, he ladled praise on those who had made this a moral issue.
And as he namechecked individual MPs who backed his formula for restoring the 0.7% pledge, he sounded very much like a chancellor delivering a Budget. In the case of Greg Clark, who urged no cuts to the £22bn science budget (which the aid budget partly funds via UK research), there was the added bonus of a cash commitment.
There was however some Sunak steel as well as a silver tongue (which Andrew Mitchell grudgingly paid tribute to). In what looked like a deliberate ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’ shift, the chancellor pointed out he was trying to balance the books more broadly, with tax rises on business, a frozen personal allowance and even “a targeted approach to public sector pay” (that’s a freeze, in Treasury-speak).
He didn’t mention, but could have, the recent decision to end the £20 uplift in Universal Credit, his determination to stop all furlough in September and his resolute opposition to allowing a simple salary replacement scheme or higher sick pay for workers forced to self-isolate with Covid. All are sure to be used against him by Labour.
Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves did their best to point out that under Sunak’s own two tests (getting the budget in surplus and debt falling), on current forecasts the aid pledge would not be met before the next election. Privately, Tory MPs were told the Treasury estimates that if there is a strong bounceback from Covid, it could be restored within two or three years.
I understand that Sunak himself came up with his ‘double lock’ idea a couple of weeks ago. But perhaps his biggest success with Tory backbenchers was not in threatening tax rises or spending cuts if he didn’t get his way (neither really played a big part, insiders say). Rather, it was in persuading them that his plan was a “compromise” at all, when critics see it as an indefinite aid cut because it sets tests that are unlikely to be met.
Before he was cut off by the Speaker for running over time, Sunak had been due to end his speech with the words: “Today, I appeal to Honourable Members’ sense of compromise. To vote for a return to 0.7 percent but in a responsible and sustainable way...A vote for a falling debt burden on future generations….a vote that will help ensure our commitment to the world’s poorest is one those future generations can afford to keep.”
Some insiders say the new system is a compromise, but only when compared to the original hardline Treasury plan. It’s claimed that before last year’s spending review, the aim was to totally repeal the overseas aid legislation to get recurring savings from the budget. Worried by rebels, the PM then offered a compromise in March, pledging 0.7% “when the fiscal situation allows”.
After the vote victory, some Tory MPs were suggesting Sunak’s own future leadership hopes had been boosted. He was already popular with lockdown sceptics like Mark Harper but was now even more popular after affirming the other Tory manifesto 2019 pledge: to reduce the debt burden and not borrow for day-to-day spending.
Some in Whitehall also say that Sunak is truly committed to pouring cash into Red Wall 2019 constituencies. “Boris not so sold on them - but Rishi is hardcore,” one source says. Some of those MPs are fiscal hawks but ‘YIMBYs’ [Yes In My Backyard] when it comes to pork barrel doled out in their own seats. Sunak hits both sweet spots, it’s claimed.
As they say in the City, there are downside risks. Red Wall northern seats often have some wealthier Tory voters, many of whom “still attend church on a Sunday and shake the Save the Children tin outside”, as one person put it. In southern seats, the Lib Dems are already gearing up to make Chesham and Amersham (which has the largest Christian Aid group in the country) look like a picnic.
Sunak may also not get his own way in the Lords on Wednesday either, as Norman Fowler tables an urgent question. I understand peers of all parties will express real discontent at Sunak’s procedural trick in bypassing them, without repealing or amending primary legislation.
Yet overall, Sunak now looks stronger within his own party. Thanks to his pandemic giveaways, he is the most popular politician in the country. A chancellor who wants to become PM has to decide not just how and when to spend public money, but how and when to spend their own political capital most wisely.
His supporters believe the mix of charm and steel will pay off in the end. Whether that’s a charitable interpretation will be upto the voters.