UK aid prospects brighten slightly in immediate election aftermath

A member of the public votes at a Polling Station in South London. Photo by: European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND

Voters in the United Kingdom have delivered a shock election result. Seven weeks after calling a snap general election with a sound majority, Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to win a bigger mandate has backfired and she will now lead a minority government, supported by a pro-U.K. Northern Irish political party.

While May has said she won’t make any sudden moves in leadership — leaving Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel in place — her weakened position and a robust Labour Party in opposition means many Conservative plans around foreign aid will likely lose momentum.

May will form an informal “confidence and supply” coalition with the conservative Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to make up for lost Conservative seats and retain an overall majority. The DUP expects no formal agreement or cabinet appointments in May’s government, meaning the party has effectively granted May carte blanche to continue as if the election never happened.

“What the country needs more than ever is certainty, and having secured the largest number of votes and the greatest number of seats in the general election, it is clear that only the Conservative and Unionist party has the legitimacy and ability to provide that certainty by commanding a majority in the House of Commons,” May said in a speech.

At the same time, an emboldened Labour Party gained 29 seats in the House of Commons under Jeremy Corbyn, meaning the left-wing party stands a much better chance of blocking any Tory initiatives that require approval from Parliament.

For example, the Conservatives have pledged to break with aid rules governed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee if members don’t agree to further blur the lines between aid and military spending. The break requires a vote in Parliament, where Labour will likely intervene. While Labour’s Lord Collins, the international development spokesperson for the House of Lords, has said “there may be a case for internationally tweaking the [rules],” he said Labour would block any attempt to break with the international community.

“As people said to me during the 0.7 debates, one of the good things about it is that the government can’t do things without coming back to Parliament,” Collins said during a debate at the Overseas Development Institute on June 1.

“I think the Conservative Party would have great difficulty in undermining the rules that we’re all totally committed to,” he said.

Likewise, Labour remains committed to an independent Department for International Development with a seat in the prime minister’s cabinet dedicated to the secretary of state for international development, according to its manifesto.

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But not all Labour’s gains in the election were good for aid. Member of Parliament Mark Williams, a staunch aid supporter and global education champion, was defeated in his bid for re-election in Ceredigion, Wales.

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Member of Parliament James Wharton, parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development on the DfID ministerial team, also lost his seat in Stockton South. A relative newcomer to aid and a Brexiteer, Wharton’s departure means DfID leadership will need to appoint a new under-secretary — a role previously held by aid champion and former U.N. Humanitarian Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien — in the coming weeks.

The now fractious state of the Conservative Party also means May’s commitment to a “hard Brexit” could be back in play, which means many aid-related concerns — such as more advantageous trade agreements with developing countries and the future of ODA spent through the European Commission — will be subject to greater influence from pro-“soft Brexit” Labour.

While the face of the government is unlikely to change in the short term, and at a distance it appears not much has changed, the policymaking relationship between the government’s leadership and the House of Commons is now transformed. On the global stage, the result follows France’s example in slowing a potential march toward isolationism among the world’s biggest aid donors. For Democrats in the United States, it also offers an aspirational example as midterm elections take shape on the horizon.

For more U.K. news, views and analysis visit the Future of DfID series page, follow @devex on Twitter and tweet using the hashtag #FutureofDfID.

About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.