Boris Johnson's Battles Are All Internal
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Thanks to a technicality of British parliamentary procedure, Boris Johnson has managed to avert an embarrassing showdown with lawmakers from his own party over the U.K. government’s budget for foreign aid. But Parliament will still get to vent on the issue Tuesday, and plenty of other divisions are emerging within the government and the Conservatives on funding priorities.
While Johnson has the opposition Labour Party on the ropes right now, he also needs to keep an eye on potential enemies within. The relationship between a prime minister and a chancellor of the exchequer is often fraught — just ask Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — and the current holder of that latter post, Rishi Sunak, is an increasingly powerful figure with budgetary views that are naturally more stringent than No. 10’s.
That 30 Tory members of Parliament, including several former cabinet ministers, were ready to overrule cuts to the country’s foreign aid budget, just as Johnson was preparing to host the G7 summit in Cornwall, won’t have been comfortable. House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle ruled the rebel amendment invalid as it wasn’t relevant enough to the piece of legislation in question.
The government argues that the 2015 law mandating that 0.7% of gross domestic product is spent on foreign aid allows for deviation in exceptional circumstances such as the pandemic, and it has lowered the percentage to 0.5%. Charity begins at home, quip ministers sent out to defend the cut. Opponents of the reduction say the move isn’t worth the pain it will cause. They argue that for the sake of 4 billion pounds ($5.7 billion) of savings, Britain is letting down the needy people overseas it had pledged to help, breaking a manifesto commitment, sacrificing the soft power that comes with being a major donor and increasing the chance that China will fill the funding gap.
The issue won’t go away. Hoyle has allowed MPs a three-hour emergency debate on the subject on Tuesday so rebels can make their case. He indicated that he’ll find other ways to give lawmakers a say if the government refuses to play along.
Holding the line on the foreign-aid cut may have seemed a relatively low-cost way, politically, for Sunak to send a signal that the free spending of the pandemic period will have to be accounted for in some way. But a government that has touted a post-Brexit vision of Global Britain has ended up looking very shortsighted.
Other spending decisions are also proving controversial within the party. Last week Johnson had to accept the resignation of his highly regarded education “catchup czar,” Kevan Collins, after the government approved only a small fraction of the aid that he recommended to help British children who’ve fallen behind at school.
The announcement was for 1.4 billion pounds of funding for teacher training and tutoring, but Collins had originally proposed a budget of 15 billion pounds. He hadn’t expected to receive everything he wanted, but getting only 10% suggested the government wasn’t serious in its ambitions. Collins resigned, saying that the funding “betrays an undervaluation of the importance of education.” The settlement, he wrote, “is too narrow, too small and will be delivered too slowly.”
Johnson, whose recent electoral success is based on a promise to “level up” struggling English communities, was left to defend the sliver of spending and say there was “hopefully more to come” for education. That was telling. A prime minister with a whopping parliamentary majority can offer only hope.
That Johnson and the chancellor differ on fiscal policy is no secret. The prime minister makes big pledges, commensurate with his promise to use government to drive growth and investment, and to improve public services. Sunak is mindful of the need to sustain Britain’s credibility in the financial markets as the emergency phase of pandemic spending ends.
The Conservative Party seems equally divided. Traditional Tories worry more about the mountain of debt that has accumulated during the Covid-19 outbreak and the prospect that state handouts will become habit forming. Johnsonian Conservatives, much more relaxed about spending, want to prove that this government can deliver on the levelling up pledge, ill-defined though it is. They see that as the key to winning elections, and keeping hold of the former Labour seats that they’ve picked up in recent votes.
It’s possible to make too much of these divisions. Both party tendencies are reasonable and having some creative tension over spending is healthy. And yet, the emerging pattern of overpromising and underdelivering is confusing and risks undermining confidence in government. Communications about spending are cryptic: Pledges are made with great fanfare, but funding levels don’t match up, leaving Johnson to speak only with aspiration about future spending rounds. The failure to give the reform of social care more than a cursory mention in last month’s Queen’s speech setting out the legislative agenda was another egregious example of this mismatch between promise and follow through.
Although Johnson’s government has a decent record when it comes to fulfilling manifesto pledges, his promise to level-up the economy in the poorer north of the country will be the longer-term target on which it is judged ultimately. As Britain emerges from its pandemic freeze there will be more difficult discussions on spending. Missing so far is a sense of what principles underpin spending decisions — and who’s making them.
To govern is to choose, as Nigel Lawson, chancellor of the exchequer under Margaret Thatcher, once said. There is a long record of chancellors and prime ministers choosing differently. That outcome rarely ends well.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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