One of the key pledges made by the Tories under David Cameron was a commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid, becoming just the sixth country to meet the target since it was set by the UN General Assembly in 1970.
The pledge, which was always hated by the right wing of the Tory Party, was part of Cameron’s plan to detoxify the Tory brand. And it was part of a social mission that the Cameroons felt was key to a new type of Tory Party. Missions to Rwanda to build schools were not just for the cameras, for many Tories they were life changing experiences.
But as austerity bit, it was harder to explain to Tory voters why taxpayers were subsidising countries like India and China, when there was a cash crisis in the NHS. The media turned against the foreign aid target, and International Development Secretary Priti Patel, a right winger who was once part of Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, was appointed by May to overhaul the spending targets.
As stories have emerged in the popular press – no doubt carefully placed there to help craft public opinion – the popularity of the policy has nose dived. Charity begins at home, say voters.
The amount of cash involved in foreign aid payments are truly tiny. It does a huge amount of good in the world, and helps to extend the soft diplomatic power of the UK – something that we will increasingly rely upon once we Brexit from the EU. So scrapping the target would save very little money for the Treasury.
The people who are most likely to dislike foreign aid spending are former UKIP voters, who are flooding back into the Tories now Brexit is official Government policy. It must surely be tempting for the Tory Party to wonder who else they are going to vote for, and ignore the temptation to shift to the right to hoover up these homeless and drifting voters.
The people who are most likely to be upset by the scrapping of the foreign aid target are the liberal Conservatives, voters who abstained from voting Tory in 1992, 1997, 2001, and 2005. Without these voters it is very difficult for the Tories to be in Government. The Cameroon project worked for a reason – elections in this country are won on the centre ground. Just because Labour is wandering off to the left, abandoning any pretence of the centre ground, isn’t a good reason for the Tories to wander off to the right, also abandoning the centre ground.
Party sources insist that no final decisions have been taken on the prospectus that May will put to the country in June. But asked by a Tory MP on Wednesday to repeat Cameron’s 2015 promise, Mrs May said “we are meeting” the commitment, but wouldn’t confirm it would continue after the election.
Ipswich MP Ben Gummer is working on the Tory Manifesto, joined by Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, Mrs May’s joint Chiefs of Staff. Chris Wilkins, her much respected foreign affairs advisor, is also involved, as is the head of the policy unit, John Godfrey.