International aid budget: Why Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross should join the rebellion against Boris Johnson's cuts – Scotsman comment

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has a track record of standing up to Boris Johnson – he did, after all, resign from the UK government over the Prime Minister’s failure to sack Dominic Cummings following his controversial lockdown travels.

So it may surprise some to discover that Ross has not joined the growing Conservative rebellion against the cut in overseas development aid, which has reportedly attracted the support of 30 Tory MPs, including former Prime Minister Theresa May, former Brexit Secretary David Davis and former defence minister Johnny Mercer.

There is some confidence among the rebels that an amendment brought by Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell to reverse the cuts will be passed by MPs this week. The timing of the vote is significant, coming just days before the G7 summit of leading nations in Cornwall when one of the main subjects for discussion will be how to help poorer countries amid the Covid pandemic.

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There are some who say that, as the UK’s economy has taken a serious blow, it is only right that our aid budget should be reduced.

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However, setting the aid budget at 0.7 per cent of national income means that when our economy does badly, the amount we spend helping poorer nations automatically falls. Johnson’s decision to reduce it to 0.5 per cent is a further cut at a time when the poorest nations are struggling to cope with Covid and its broader effects on their economies.

The Conservatives 2019 manifesto pledged to keep the 0.7 per cent figure and the reduction has been introduced without a vote in parliament, as the government claims it is only a ‘temporary’ measure.

It may be that Ross, who is both an MP and an MSP, supports this particular decision, as wrong-headed as it is. Or perhaps he feels he has used too much political capital in distancing himself from Johnson’s less popular decisions.

But, for whatever reason, his “deafening silence” on the issue – to quote the SNP's Westminster deputy leader Kirsten Oswald – has created a clear line of attack for other parties.

And Oswald did not mince her words. “The Tory government’s cuts to the aid budget in the middle of a global pandemic is callous to the core – punishing some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable as they face a disproportionate hit from the Covid crisis,” she said.

This may sound like the usual back-and-forth between parties, but what makes it different is that leading Conservatives agree that cutting foreign aid by so much is wrong.

Apart from the rebel MPs, Ruth Davidson has warned this was a “counterproductive choice – morally, economically and politically”. And, ahead of the expected Commons vote, John Major, who made his views known to ministers privately a few weeks ago, said that “even at this late hour I hope they [the UK government] will honour their better instincts and let compassion prevail to aid those in dire need”.

It makes political sense in Scotland for Ross to join the rebels, but that is not the reason why he should do so.

The real reason is, quite simply, that it is the right thing to do.

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