Boris Johnson faces the prospect of defeat in the House of Commons for the first time since he won a convincing majority at the 2019 election. Rebel Conservative MPs are convinced that they have enough support to force the Prime Minister to restore the cut in foreign aid.
We will find out shortly if Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker, will allow a vote on the issue tonight. If Mr Hoyle selects the amendment in the name of Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative MP and former international development secretary, MPs will vote at 10pm tonight. The government has a working majority of 85, so if 43 Tory MPs switch to vote with the opposition (and provided the opposition parties muster a full turnout), Mr Johnson will lose.
If the speaker rules the amendment “out of scope” – and it is a bit of a stretch to add a clause restoring the foreign aid cut to a bill to set up a science research agency – then that will only postpone the showdown. The Tory rebels are determined to force a vote in the Commons, and if they cannot use this bill they will find another way soon.
Speculation is rife at Westminster that the Prime Minister will do a deal with the rebels if Mark Spencer, the government chief whip, tells him he expects to lose the vote, but the rebels will want some kind of bankable guarantee that the aid cut will be restored before they withdraw their amendment.
I will be here at 4pm to answer your questions about the first big split in Conservative unity since the election. By then we may have a better idea of how the argument is going to develop.
It may be that the prime minister is relatively relaxed about losing the vote, because he knows that aid spending is unpopular with most voters. It may be that he thinks the issue will help him, even if he is defeated, because he will be seen as being on the side of the people against parliament – just as he was on getting Brexit done.
Previous prime ministers have been happy to be on the losing sides of parliamentary votes when they thought their position was popular: Margaret Thatcher, for example, supported the death penalty despite a large majority in the Commons against it, and Tony Blair shrugged when he lost the vote on 90-day detention of terrorist suspects, saying: “Sometimes it is better to lose and do the right thing than to win and do the wrong thing.”
Mr Johnson’s position on foreign aid is more complicated, because the promise to spend 0.7 per cent of national income was in his own manifesto at the election, so he is not just disagreeing with the House of Commons but with himself.
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