Boris Johnson has repeatedly refused to rule out ditching the Conservative manifesto pledge to maintain the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) on international development aid.
The prime minister on Thursday announced what he said was an end to the “era of retreat” as he unveiled an increase in defence spending of £16.5bn over four years.
But senior Tory MPs raised concerns in the Commons that Johnson was about to gut spending on foreign aid.
Johnson has already closed down the Department for International Development (Dfid) and merged it with the Foreign Office to create the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
The UK, in line with an international target, is committed to spending 0.7% of its gross national income on overseas aid.
In 2019 the total aid budget was £15.2 billion but as the target is linked to the health of the economy the amount is expected to shrink in any event as a result of the impact of coronavirus.
The Conservative 2019 general election manifesto promised: “We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on development, and do more to help countries receiving aid become self-sufficient.”
Andrew Mitchell, a former Conservative international development secretary, told Johnson he should heed the warning by general Mattis, the former American defence secretary, who told Donald Trump: “The more you cut aid, the more I have to spend on ammunition.”
Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary who lost out to Jonhnson in the 2019 Tory leadership contest, warned a cut in aid spending would send the “wrong signal out to the world about our values as a country”.
“We spent a decade wining the argument,” he said of the 0.7% pledge. “Even a temporary cut will create an enormous clamour of people who will say we should not go back it.”
Johnson told MPs he expected that British people “will continue to be world leaders in giving aid” but dodged demands he maintain his manifesto commitment.
“I think that this country as I say can be very proud of our record in overseas aid, we lead the world and will continue to lead the world under this government,” he said.
“Under any view this country is, has been and will remain one of the biggest contributors to aid of any country on earth.”
Lieutenant General Phil Jones (Retd.) the former chief of staff for Nato at the Ministry of Defence, said on Thursday that “development supports defence and diplomacy”.
“The UK’s global influence is best when combining defence, aid and trade to help those who need it most and protect us from emerging threats in the future. Now is not the time to cut the aid budget,” he said.