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Putting our arms around the National Elf Service

First have Christmas, then pay for it

One imagines it’s always a tense moment in Number 10 when a civil servant has to tell the prime minister that an eight-year-old has written to him. Who can remember where they were eight years and nine months ago?

Fortunately there are no superinjunctions or DNA tests involved with the letter that Boris Johnson put on his Twitter feed from a child named Monti on Wednesday morning. “I was wondering if you and the government had thought about Santa coming this Christmas,” it began. Thought about it? It’s the government’s entire plan for a Brexit deal.

One really hopes that Monti isn’t pinning his hopes on getting a ‘world-beating’ stocking this year

Monti wanted to know if Santa Claus would still be able to visit, what with the virus and all. The prime minister, who has a keen interest in the business of sneaking in and out of bedrooms in the middle of the night, was delighted to reply. “I know millions of other children are asking the same thing,” he wrote. “Just to make sure, I have put in a call to the North Pole and I can tell you Father Christmas is ready and raring to go, as are Rudolph and all of the other reindeer.”

Look, it’s a sweet letter from a child, and it’s a nice reply. But is anyone else troubled that Johnson talks about Santa Claus in exactly the same way he talks about everything from vaccines to virus tests to customs infrastructure? One really hopes that Monti isn’t pinning his hopes on getting a “world-beating” stocking this year.

A couple of hours after publishing the letter, Johnson accused Keir Starmer, who had asked about Priti Patel’s bullying of officials, of concentrating on “trivia”. There is something magnificent about describing your opponent as lacking seriousness when you’ve just press released your phone call with Father Christmas.

Other children who will be lucky to even get a lump of coal in their stockings turn out to be those in the Third World. Rishi Sunak arrived in the House of Commons to announce that Santa – or British Santa, at any rate – had rather less room in his sack this year.

“Our health emergency is not yet over,” he opened. “And our economic emergency has only just begun.” In that context, the overseas aid budget would be cut by a third. Government must make “tough choices,” he said, though taking money away from people who can’t vote for you isn’t as tough as all that.

The problem is that Johnson promised quite a lot of Tories last year that he wouldn’t do this, and if you can’t take a Boris Johnson promise to the World Bank then, well, what are things coming to?

More recently, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab ruled it out in September, when his department took over the aid job. Yet there he was on Wednesday, sat as close to Sunak as one is allowed these days, nodding sagely to the cuts. It is of course possible that he hasn’t understood the full extent of the aid programme’s reliance on money.

Sir Peter Bottomley was the first Tory to rise to protest the cut. The promise not to do it had, he said, been in the 2015 Tory manifesto and the 2019 one, with the only change being the addition of the word “proudly”. He pledged to work with any MP to block it.

Other Tories followed: David Davis, Jeremy Hunt, Tobias Ellwood. Andrew Mitchell said the move would cost the lives of 100,000 children. “None of us in this House will be able to look our children in the eye and say we did not know what we were voting for,” he said. Harriet Baldwin was brief: “I personally feel ashamed that the only manifesto commitment we’re breaking today is a promise to the world’s poorest.”

To each of them, Sunak offered the same reply, that he knew it was tough, and he was sorry he couldn’t do more.

Not every Tory was unhappy, and part of the issue is that some suspect this is the sort of thing they would have liked to do anyway, pandemic or not. The foreign aid commitment was a key part of David Cameron’s moves to make the Conservatives a nicer party. We don’t know all the targets of the culture war that Johnson’s Tories apparently want to wage, but it’s clear that the Conservative Party circa 2006 is one of them.

Philip Davies said voters would be asking why we weren’t cutting aid more, and said he hoped this would mean there would be money for a new bypass in his constituency. Sunak replied that this was an “important point”. Matt Vickers, one of the 2019 intake, asked if the money could be diverted to Teesside.

Outside the chamber, the announcement was condemned by the Archbishop of Canterbury but praised by Nigel Farage. That might make a few Tories feel a little queasy.

But to govern is to choose, and all that. On Wednesday the Conservative Party chose to be a bit less “love thy neighbour” (Matthew 22:39) and a bit more Love Thy Neighbour (Thames TV, 1972).

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