Boris Johnson suffered a fierce Tory backlash over foreign aid budget cuts, although he signalled he will not give MPs a parliamentary vote on his decision.
Former prime minister Theresa May used an emergency Commons debate to warn the temporary £4 billion reduction in spending will have a “devastating impact” on the poorest people in the world and it will also “damage” the UK.
The Conservative MP urged her successor to reinstate the budget from 0.5% of national income to 0.7% in line with the party’s 2019 general election manifesto pledge.
David Davis, the Tory former Brexit secretary, also rubbished suggestions that the party’s new voters in traditional Labour “red wall” heartlands are against foreign aid and said many would support the spending.
But ahead of the debate, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said ministers were acting within the law in suspending the commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on aid – even though it is enshrined in legislation.
The move puts the Government on a collision course with the Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle as well as many of its own backbenchers, who are seeking to reverse the cuts.
On Monday, Sir Lindsay ruled an attempt by rebel Tories to amend an unrelated Bill going through Parliament to force the Government to backtrack was out of order.
However, he made clear he believed MPs should be given the opportunity to take an “effective decision” on the cuts.
He suggested that if ministers were not prepared to allow a vote, the Commons would “look to find other ways in which we can move forward”.
However, the Prime Minister’s spokesman insisted the Government was “acting in accordance” with the International Development Act 2015, which allows for the suspension of the 0.7% target in exceptional circumstances such as the pandemic.
“It explicitly envisages the circumstances which we now face, which is this global pandemic,” the spokesman said.
“There are certainly no plans to bring forward a vote.”
Later, Conservative former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell opened the emergency debate by telling the chamber that the aid spending cut was an “unethical and unlawful betrayal”.
He added: “I want to argue to the House this afternoon that what the Government is doing is unethical, possibly illegal, and certainly breaks our promise. It’s not proper and it’s fundamentally un-British and we shouldn’t behave in this way.”
Mrs May said: “I urge the Government to reinstate the 0.7% – it is what it promised, it will show that we act according to our values and it will save lives.”
On the impact on the UK’s world standing, she added: “They (people) listen to us because of what we do, they listen to us because of how we put our values into practice.
“The damage it does to our reputation means that it will be far harder for us as a country to argue for change that we want internationally, that is across the board, including at Cop26 and also including setting out and putting into place the ambitions of the Integrated Review.”
Mr Davis, on suggestions from people that working-class voters in northern red wall seats “do not like foreign aid”, said: “Well, I’ve defended a blue brick in that red wall for 33 years and I can tell you that they’re wrong.
“The simple truth is that if you say to somebody in one of those seats ‘do you want to spend money on the Ethiopian Spice Girls?’, they’ll say ‘no, I’d rather spend it on a local school or cutting poverty in Barnsley’ or wherever it may be.
“But if you ask them the proper question, the real question, they’ll give you the real British generous answer.”
Mr Davis also said of the cut: “This is not the right thing. It’s the morally wrong decision for the world, and it’s a practically wrong decision for our country.”
Conservative Sir Roger Gale (North Thanet) warned other countries will fill the vacuum left by the UK, including China and Russia.
Sir Roger went on: “I just wonder how many colleagues are prepared to see the emerging democracies turn to communist dictators for their assistance because we’ve pulled the rug out from under them.”
Treasury minister Steve Barclay insisted the Government wants to return to 0.7% “when the fiscal situation allows” but suggested “raising taxes or cutting public spending” would be needed to reach the target at the moment.
The row is potentially embarrassing for Mr Johnson as he prepares to host world leaders at the G7 summit in Cornwall later this week.