In comments ahead of a potential showdown on the issue later today, the former cabinet minister David Davis also insisted he was “pretty sure” rebels had the required numbers to wipe out the prime minister’s 80-seat majority.
It comes after dozens of Tory MPs – including former prime minister Theresa May – threatened the government with its first defeat since the 2019 election, as they backed an amendment seeking to reinstate Britain’s commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on aid from January 2020.
Led by the former Conservative chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, rebels are seeking to add an amendment to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) – a piece of legislation that establishes a new “high-risk, high reward” research agency backed with £800 million to explore new ideas.
Reports on Monday suggested, however, that the clerks had advised Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons speaker, that the rebels’ amendment was “completely out of scope” of the Bill— potentially scuppering the chance of the issue being voted on.
Sir Lindsay’s office declined to comment, but he will give his final decision on whether the amendment will be selected for consideration when the Bill returns to the Commons later today.
Government ministers have previously blamed the economic turmoil caused by the Covid-19 pandemic for the decision last autumn to break the Tory manifesto pledge and reduce aid spending to 0.5 per cent – amounting to an estimated £4 billion reduction in aid.
They have also insisted the measure is only “temporary”, but have repeatedly refused to test support for the cut in the Commons and have also resisted calls to outline a timetable of when the funds will be restored.
Speaking ahead of a gathering of world leaders at the annual G7 summit, which is being hosted in the UK later this week, Mr Davis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are unique in the G7 – no other country in the G7 is cutting aid in this way.
“It’s going to have devastating consequences across the world. I’m historically a critic of aid spending, but doing it this way is really so harmful.”
The former Brexit secretary went on: “We’re throwing away enormous influence, particularly in Africa where there’s a great ideological battle with China. But this, morally, is a devastating thing for us to have done.”
“If it [the government] wanted to do this, should have brought it to the House of Commons and said this in our manifesto, but the duress we’re facing now means we have to do this, so ask the House to approve it.
“It didn’t. The reason it didn’t is because the majority of the House doesn’t agree with it. That’s what we’re going to see today if we get the vote. I’m afraid that’s frankly in my judgement a morally poor position for the government”.
Referring to huge cuts to overseas water and sanitation projects as a result of the overall fall in aid spending, Mr Davis said: “You’ve got massive cuts in clean water which kills more children worldwide than almost anything else – 80 per cent cut there.”
When pressed on whether he would like to see the cuts reversed – rather than funding commitments returned next year – he replied: “In this year I would look and say you’ve just got to have a very close look at the damage you’re doing. If you are going to kill people with this, which I think is going to be the outcome in many areas, we need to reverse those immediately.”
Last week Mr Mitchell, who is leading the rebellion, told Sky News that “far more than 100,000 people – which was the original estimate – of avoidable deaths will take place as a result of these terrible cuts”.
The justice minister Lucy Frazer insisted on Monday the cuts to overseas aid will be a temporary measure, saying: “Even without the 0.7 per cent this year we will be investing £10 billion and that’s really important, but we are in the middle of a pandemic.
“What we’ve said is of course international aid needs to be spent but we’re going to temporarily cease the 0.7 per cent and bring it back when the fiscal circumstances allow,” she told Sky News.
In a separate interview on Times Radio, she added: “The pandemic has forced us to make tough decisions and that’s why we’ve said we’ll temporarily reduce the amount that we’ll spend. It does say in the legislation that we commit to 0.7 per cent but that can be varied if the fiscal or economic circumstances suggest that it should, and that is the circumstances we find ourselves in.
“In the current legislation it already says the 0.7 per cent isn’t a commitment if the fiscal or circumstances change.”