Foreign aid ranks well below Marks & Spencer closures for British Conservatives
Polls show voters more concerned about 'levelling up' Britain than rest of the world
Three years ago, I was asked if I would chair a public Q&A for Putney Conservatives in south-west London with Justine Greening.
She was the Tory member of parliament for the constituency and had just resigned from the Cabinet.
Ms Greening was a leading figure on the left of the Conservative Party – there was talk of her standing as a candidate for mayor of London.
Before we got going, she made a short speech emphasising her belief in “social mobility”. Every child, she said, regardless of their background, ethnicity and location, deserved the same chances in life.
I then interviewed Ms Greening about her career. She’d been economic secretary to the Treasury, transport secretary, international development secretary, minister for women and equalities and education secretary. Of that line-up she said the job that gave her the most satisfaction was in international development, “helping children in Africa to read and write”.
We took questions from the floor. Hands shot up. I pointed at one man near the front. He stood up. He was wearing a red V-neck jumper and yellow cords. As he prepared to ask his question he looked around and behind him. He was smiling. Clearly, he’d got something he thought was crowd-pleasing to say.
“Justine, we heard you talk about social mobility. I want to read you a list.” He then trotted out a roll call of British towns and places. The final one was Putney.
“Do you know what links them, Justine? They’ve all lost their branches of Marks & Spencer. That’s what the people of Putney care about, Marks & Spencer, not social mobility.”
The audience cheered. Ms Greening looked uncomfortable and said she understood but stressed the importance of equal opportunity for all. Cue much chuntering.
Next came a man who said: “Justine, we’ve heard you tell Chris about children in Africa but what about the children in Putney, what about helping them?” At this, the hall erupted in roars of approval.
Poor Ms Greening again had to give a waffly answer. Subsequently, Ms Greening announced she would not be standing as a Conservative in the next general election and left full-time politics.
Ms Greening is credited with inventing the phrase “levelling up”. She was explaining to her mother in her native Yorkshire what “social mobility” meant and how it definitely did not mean getting around in wheelchairs.
Her mother looked nonplussed, so she came up with the expression and began using “levelling up” in her departmental literature, speeches and articles.
It was later adopted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – she says that of all the senior Tories he was the only one to grasp its importance.
While Ms Greening approves of the way “levelling up” has become Mr Johnson’s mantra and delivered him erstwhile Labour seats in the North and Midlands of England – how can she not? – it is now a catch-all, used to defend all sorts of policies.
Among them, ironically, is cutting Ms Greening’s beloved international aid budget. Mr Johnson wants to be seen to be putting Britain’s needs first. Neither does he have much money to play with, so the very funding that was devoted to assisting those children in Africa is to be slashed.
That is infuriating many in his party who see it as a derogation of moral duty and damaging to Britain’s standing in the world.
Mr Johnson, seemingly, is not concerned. He knows what he is proposing plays to the kind of Tories who were in Putney that evening, as it does to a broad swathe of the electorate.
Opinion polls may show that Britons believe in “fairness” and “doing the right thing”. But he is also aware that his party’s private polling, the scoring that determines how Tory voters are thinking and measures its prioritising, puts foreign aid way down the list.
It’s this that drives him and Tory backbenchers. What must they do to retain their jobs, to win again at the next election? In that context, “levelling up” matters greatly but levelling up across Britain, not with other parts of the world.
That’s why Mr Johnson is so unmoved by the revolt by Tory MPs against the overseas aid cut.
Behind him, he’s got the mass of the party and his new supporters; those who were so fed up with Labour for ignoring them, for devoting millions to the inhabitants of far-flung lands and for not paying enough attention to those closer to home that they switched to the right.
As Johnson hosts the leaders of the G7, it’s been suggested he will be embarrassed by the controversy
The only aspect of the row that may cause Mr Johnson to pause is if the reduction genuinely does harm the UK’s international standing.
Since 2015, under UK law, the country must give at least 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income to lower and middle-income countries to assist their development. Mr Johnson wants to go down to 0.5 per cent of GNI, despite a UN target of 0.7 per cent.
As Mr Johnson hosts the leaders of the G7 wealthy democracies in Cornwall this weekend, it’s been suggested he will be embarrassed by the controversy, that they will think less of him and the UK.
Will they really? According to the most recent figures, of the G7 nations only Germany at 0.73 per cent gives more than the UK. At 0.5 per cent, Britain would slip behind France but still remain ahead of Canada, Japan, Italy and the US.
More pertinent perhaps is Britain’s right to be in the G7 at all. In terms of economic size, the UK may claim to be the fifth largest economy in the world. But based on GDP per capita, it would come 11th in the EU, if it were still a member, and is positioned 17th in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
That shows a lack of productivity and to go with it, prosperity. All the more reason, then, for focusing on raising the economy domestically, at boosting public spending in less-advantaged parts of the UK.
Mr Johnson may not be entitled to chair the meeting but it will not detain him. He knows how to give a good shindig, particularly one attended by premiers and presidents and he’s completely aware of what’s important, where he is heading and what his followers desire.
Updated: June 9, 2021 07:34 PM