Here we go again. History is repeating itself; recent history, at that. In January, peers hijacked a Bill, loaded it up with an unrelated amendment, and sent it on its way. The Bill was the Trade Bill. The amendment was the genocide amendment.
This time round, the Bill is the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill. And the amendment in question seeks to restore the 0.7 per cent international development spending target. Andrew Mitchell made the case for it on this site today. It may be considered today.
So, then: before considering the personalities, the procedural dodges and the politics, we turn to the issues. These remain as they were before.
On the one hand, emergency aid is a good thing. (Ninety two per cent of this site’s Conservative Party panel members agree. They also back immunisation, water provision and sanitation overwhelmingly. Most UK direct aid is now of these types.)
On the other, there is no special virtue in linking aid to a particular percentage of gross national income. (86 per cent of our panel back that view, too.)
Mind you, the Government’s argument that it needs to cut the figure from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent now lacks credibility. It is set to spend like the proverbial inebriated sailer up until 2023, adding some £73 billion extra to the economy.
So why make aid an exception to this general rule, and shave off some £3.5 billion now, rather than hang on for a couple of years? The bleak answer is: because Rishi Sunak believes that it will go down a storm with the focus groups.
Listening to voters is tickety-boo in principle but, in this case, problematic in practice. That’s because the Conservative manifesto proclaimed: “we will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development”.
And you can’t break manifesto promises you don’t like without consequences for those you do. In the Oxford Union, the Government’s opponents would have the better of the argument. What about on the floor of the Commons?
Here, Ministers seem to have the edge – because the reduction from 0.7 per cent will be considered not as a general proposition, but in the specific context of the ARIA Bill.
Rob Colvile points out that the amendment would wreck the new agency. It will receive about £200 million a year. This year’s direct aid cut, as we say above, is about £3.5 billion.
So the amendment would transform ARIA from a research agency to an aid agency: if the amendment passes, ARIA will be set, at least at first glance, to become the old International Development Department – which Boris Johnson went to a lot of time and trouble to scrap.
Tory MPs might not mind such an outcome: after all, ARIA is a Dominic Cummings legacy product. Some would welcome the chance, to borrow Rob’s image, to give him a farewell kick in the balls.
Except, of course, that nothing of the kind will happen if the rebels win. In that event, the Government will simply pledge to restore the 0.7 per cent, fund it by the usual means…and slap down an amendment to the ARIA Bill in the Lords to restore the agency’s original purpose.
That is, if the amendment is debated at all. For it may not be in scope. Mitchell will argue it is; the whips that it isn’t. The Speaker will decide later today. Confused yet?
Whether you are or not, let’s return to our original claim: that the amendment has the same relationship to this Bill as the genocide amendment did to the Trade Bill. We think that we can defend it.
The point about the genocide amendment is that it went back and forth between the Lords and Commons no fewer than three times – before the Government finally saw it off.
(If it had gone to the Commons first time round in its final form, by which time it was much improved, it might well have passed. But that’s another story.)
The Speaker may rule the 0.7 per cent restoration amendment in order later today or he may not. If he doesn’t, peers will doubtless find a way of tabling a similar amendment when the Bill goes to the Lords.
If he does so rule and the Government wins, ditto. In either case, peers will surely vote for a 0.7 per cent proposal…and Ministers will again ask the Commons to reject it. All very like the genocide amendment, as we say.
So what if Speaker selects Mitchell’s amendment today, and the Government actually loses? That looks like a long shot. The Government’s majority over all non-Conservative MPs, Sinn Fein and the Speaker excluded, is 88.
However, Mitchell’s real target is almost certainly lower than 45. (For not all those Opposition MPs will turn up tomorrow.) All the same, his is a formidable undertaking.
Our best bet is that if the amendment is selected, and if the whips believe that it has a chance of winning, the following exchange may take place from the despatch box (more or less). Unless Ministers take the hari-kari option, and pull the Bill entirely.
Minister: “The Government has always said that we intend to return to 0.7 per cent as soon as possible. I can give my honourable friend the assurance that we are now in a position to do so next year. Is he content to withdraw the amendment?”
Mitchell: “I have always said that my honourable friends and I are willing, however reluctantly, to accept a cut to 0.5 per cent for this single year. I’m delighted by my honourable friend’s reassurance, and can confirm that the amendment will be withdrawn.”
(You may well ask how a cut that’s morally unacceptable in future years would be morally acceptable this year. Or how a cut that’s essential this year woudn’t be next year. Finer minds than ours may have answers.)
Now stand back for a moment from the numbers, the rulings, the whipping, the Parliamentary deals and dodges we haven’t anticipated, if the comparison with the genocide amendment is apt – and whether or not this amendment is the last stand of the Cameroons…
…which is both is and isn’t, since its Tory supporters encompass not only aid enthusiasts, but serial rebels and Christian campaigners – nearly all from pre-2019 intakes.
After all these twists and turns, the crucial point is this. The 0.7 per cent campaigners will win sooner or later. If they don’t do so in the Commons this afternoon, they may do so in Parliament eventually.
And if they don’t do so in Parliament, they will do so in court – thanks to the Commons’ decision under the Coalition to enshrine the 0.7 commitment in law.
Ministers might get away with first missing the target, and then apologising to the House. But by having declared that they will deliberately miss it, they are bang to rights. Dominic Raab fessed up to this before Boris Johnson contradicted him.
ConservativeHome would lay a small bet that the savvier Government business managers are crossing their fingers, hoping the Speaker selects the amendment tomorrow…and lobbying internally for a concession.
Which would save the whips future trouble with their “flocks”, Ministers ticklish appearances at the despatch box, the Government embarrassment in the courts, and the taxpayer a tidy sum in legal fees.
What’s that you say? That the aid costs are far greater? Why, of course. But that’s what comes of the virtue-signalling practice of setting spending targets in law, rather than letting MPs debate and vote on expenditure. As we keep saying. Again and again.