Somewhere on a board in Downing Street there must be a rota of ministers whose turn it is to go out and defend something hideous. Second Tuesday of the month, it’s Steve Barclay, Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
The particular hideousness facing him was the government’s decision to break its election promise and cut foreign aid spending. With the moral courage typical of a Cabinet led by Boris Johnson, ministers have tried very hard to avoid discussing this, and even harder not to have a Commons debate about it.
But a debate there was, if not a vote, thanks to a compromise ruling from Speaker Lindsay Hoyle on Monday.
So Barclay was sent along to explain the decision. Not Dominic Raab, who runs the department that is currently deciding which aid programmes will go – literally choosing where people will live and where they’ll die. Not Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who has pushed through the cut. Certainly not Johnson, who promised both voters and MPs that he wouldn’t do precisely this thing.
Before Barclay stood up, he had to listen to Andrew Mitchell, the first of many Tory MPs to attack the cuts. He was unflinching, describing how he’d met starving – actually starving – children in Uganda. He pointed out that every MP had been elected on a promise to maintain foreign aid, that the law required them to maintain it. The move was, he said, “unethical, possibly illegal and certainly breaks our promise”.
He hadn’t finished. “Everyone knows what this is about,” he went on. “It is about the red wall seats. The government think that it is popular in the red wall seats to stop British aid money going overseas.” He had been told as much, he said, by a Treasury minister.
It’s an argument – effectively that the Tories are a nasty party for nasty people – that no minister would be so foolish as to make in public. Certainly Barclay, a likeable fellow, with the air of a dad coaching an under-11 football team, didn’t. The problem was, he explained, that having spent £352 billion to support the country through the pandemic, Britain just couldn’t afford the extra £4 billion that it would cost to keep its aid promise.
The chamber wasn’t buying that. David Davis said he’d spent decades defending “a brick in that red wall” and that if you asked his voters about the cut “they’ll give you the real, British, generous answer”. Was no one going to stand up and announce that their voters were selfish bastards?
Apparently not. Theresa May attacked the government. Ian Paisley Jr attacked the government, noting with astonishment that Johnson had managed to unite him with the Labour Party. It was 90 minutes before a Tory backbencher, Maria Miller, made a speech in favour of the aid cut, and that was reluctant. Barely any colleagues followed in support.
Was no one going to stand up and announce that their voters were selfish bastards?
What was notable was the contempt with which many of the Tory MPs talked about their own government. Sir Edward Leigh, no-one’s idea of a milquetoast Remainer, was furious about the underhand approach of ministers. “Let the government make their argument honestly,” he said. “After all, this is the law.” Is the penny, perhaps, dropping that Johnson’s operation is not a completely trustworthy one?
Not among all of them, of course. As the debate was closing, Alexander Stafford, a Tory elected for Rother Valley in 2019 rose, to make the case that his voters, at least, are neither generous nor kind-hearted, and “wholeheartedly support the government’s decision”. Aid money, he said, “should go towards helping to level up Rother Valley for the British people”.
Johnson will be glad to have Stafford and other newbies onside for now, but at some point they will realise that Sunak is going to have to cut a lot more than food for African children to balance his books. On that day, they may not be so keen to cheer for fiscal responsibility.
Johnson, we learned this week, believes that “people live by narrative”, but they cannot live by narrative alone. They need bread too.
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