The British government on Tuesday avoided defeat over controversial plans to slash the foreign aid budget, which has triggered anger among lawmakers and campaigners who warned it will cost lives around the world.
MPs in the House of Commons voted 333 to 298 to approve a government motion to keep the cuts until economic conditions allow the budget to be restored.
The government maintains it needs to suspend a legal obligation to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid to help rein in public borrowing, which has ballooned to World War II levels during the coronavirus pandemic.
Finance minister Rishi Sunak had called a snap vote, hoping a pledge to reinstate the 0.7 percent commitment once borrowing is brought down would win over the rebels, including from within the governing Conservatives.
But former prime minister Theresa May was among those who voted against, saying the government was turning its back on the world’s poor as well as reneging on its election promise in 2019 to maintain the budget.
“Fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in the world will die,” she said.
The proposal to reinstate aid to 0.7 percent eventually was seen as an attempt to win over the rebels who threatened the government’s 85-seat working majority in parliament.
Sunak has said unforeseen pandemic spending meant he had to cut the budget from £15 billion ($21 billion) to £10 billion, or find savings elsewhere.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson opened Tuesday’s debate by telling MPs that there was common ground on the issue.
“We believe in the power of aid to transform millions of lives,” he said. “This is not an argument about principle, the only question is of when we return to 0.7 percent.”
Britain had spent more than £400 billion on dealing with the pandemic at home, and “there must inevitably be consequences for other areas of public spending”.
The main opposition Labour party’s leader, Keir Starmer, said the cut was likely not temporary but “indefinite”, given the prospect that the right economic conditions will not be met in the foreseeable future.
“This is not just about economic necessity, it is a political choice that is being made, and it is a choice that is not only against our national interest, it further erodes trust in our politics,” he added.
The cut, which comes after sustained criticism about foreign aid spending from right-wing media, has also triggered fierce criticism from campaigners for its effect on humanitarian projects and the damage to Britain’s global standing.
Oxfam called the result of the vote a “disaster for the world’s poorest people” at a time when aid was needed more than ever during the global health crisis.
The UK director of the One Campaign, Romilly Greenhill, said it was a “needless retreat from the world stage… at the exact moment the UK should be showing leadership”.
Nick Mabey, of the climate think-tank E3G, said the cut could also leave Britain without leverage at November’s COP26 UN summit in Glasgow, sending its envoy Alok Sharma “naked into the conference”.
He told AFP Britain would struggle to persuade richer countries to fund further climate action, and its aid cut would make it difficult for poorer countries to afford to pay for any new pledges.
Tory rebel Andrew Mitchell said before Tuesday’s vote that foreign aid was the only cut the government was proposing, and the amount saved would only be one percent of the borrowing on Covid in the past year.