Three of UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s predecessors have lambasted his decision to merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign Office, branding it a “mistake” that would result in “less respect” for the UK abroad.
Setting out plans for a post-Brexit “global Britain”, Mr Johnson told MPs on Tuesday that the £13.4bn overseas aid budget could be better aligned with other policy objectives under the control of a combined Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
He added that for “too long” UK overseas aid has been treated as a “giant cashpoint in the sky” and the merger would both ensure “maximum value” for the British taxpayer and “unite our aid with our diplomacy”.
In a rare intervention from a former Tory premier, David Cameron responded on Twitter that it was “a mistake” resulting in “less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas”.
His sentiment was echoed by former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Mr Blair said he was “utterly dismayed” by the “wrong and regressive move”, while Mr Brown said it was “sad” the government was “abolishing one of the UK’s “great international assets”.
Labour leader Keir Starmer, suggested the announcement was designed to “deflect attention” from the prime minister’s handling of the pandemic.
Charities warned that the move risked aid becoming a vehicle for UK foreign policy and would dismantle Britain’s leadership on international development issues. The UK is one of the world’s largest donors of foreign aid.
Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam, described the merger as “scarcely believable”. He added: “This decision puts politics above the needs of the poorest people and will mean more people around the world will die unnecessarily from hunger and disease.”
DfID was spun out of the Foreign Office by Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1997. Putting the two departments back together has been a long-term ambition of Mr Johnson.
Downing Street has been anxious to regain the political initiative after weeks of “drift”, according to one Tory official. The Whitehall shake-up is separate from the integrated foreign policy review, conducted by Number 10 aide John Bew and due to report in September.
Mr Johnson said the government remained committed to spending 0.7 per cent of national income a year on foreign aid in line with the commitment in the Conservative party’s election manifesto.
“0.7 per cent is staying the same but it is going to be properly squeezed. For the first time, the aid budget will be reduced from last year,” said one minister.
Mr Johnson hinted that the newly merged department would have different spending priorities to reflect the shifting geopolitical situation.
“It’s no use a British diplomat going in to see the leader of a country and urging him not to cut the head off his opponent, and to do something for democracy in his country if the next day another emanation of this government is going to arrive with a cheque for £250m,” he said.
In February’s cabinet reshuffle, seven junior ministers were shared between the two departments for the first time — paving the way for the merger, which is expected to be completed by September.
The merger is likely to create a scramble in Whitehall for the plum role as its new permanent secretary. Simon McDonald, has been Foreign Office permanent secretary since 2015, and his term is expected to end soon.
Peter Ricketts, a former UK national security adviser, said: “In my experience, departmental mergers soak up time and effort of senior management and rarely deliver real operational benefits.
“A more integrated UK international structure would be a good thing, but what really matters is a clear national strategy for it to implement.”
Whitehall officials said that “things have gone quiet” on other proposed “machinery of government” changes, including a superministry combining the business and international trade departments.