Boris Johnson is planning to fold the UK’s Department for International Development into the Foreign Office if he wins this week’s election, as he tries to flesh out his promise to build a post-Brexit “global Britain”.
Mr Johnson wants Britain’s £13.4bn overseas aid budget to be used more effectively and thinks putting it under the control of the Foreign Office would better align it with the country’s political and business objectives.
Officials at the FCO and at Dfid are drawing up plans to show how a possible merger of the two departments could work, according to several sources, in anticipation of a possible move by Mr Johnson early in 2020.
If Mr Johnson wins the election he is expected to stage a big shake-up of Whitehall — and hold a substantial cabinet reshuffle — after Britain’s planned departure from the EU on January 31.
“There is thinking going on about it,” said one government official. “We want things to work better overseas. This shake-up could be positive for the UK in the world and our presence in the world.”
However, some Dfid officials fear that the revamp — described as “a rumour” by a close ally of Mr Johnson — could be used as a pretext to cut Britain’s overseas aid budget, which has long been criticised by the rightwing of the Conservative party.
Some in Number 10 have suggested that Britain should set its own rules for what counts as “overseas aid” — including more defence and embassy spending — rather than using the OECD definition.
However, the Tory manifesto states: “We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development, and do more to help countries receiving aid become self-sufficient.”
Mr Johnson’s closest allies argue that if the UK — one of the few rich countries to meet the UN’s 0.7 per cent target — started to slide out of its obligations, it would damage its standing in the world.
“It wouldn’t be a great message to send,” said one. “We are trying to prove that Brexit does not mean we will become more inward-looking.”
One senior Whitehall official said: “People at Dfid would resign if this happened.”
Mr Johnson told the Financial Times in January, when he was foreign secretary, that he wanted to bring Dfid, which became a self-standing department in 1997 under Tony Blair’s government, back into the Foreign Office.
He told the FT at the time that he wanted a “unified Whitehall voice” for an effective post-Brexit foreign policy, adding: “It is perfectly possible to boost global development in a way that coheres much better with UK political and indeed commercial objectives.”
The Foreign Office has a budget of just £1.2bn and Mr Johnson would frequently complain that in his role as foreign secretary he did not have much financial firepower at his disposal on diplomatic trips abroad.
By contrast, the Dfid budget stands at £13.4bn. Mr Johnson said in January: “We can’t keep spending huge sums of money as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO.”
If victorious on Thursday, Mr Johnson is expected to hold only a limited ministerial reshuffle to replace ministers who are stepping down — such as culture secretary Nicky Morgan — or any who lose their seats.
A bigger shake-up of ministers and departments would follow after “Brexit day” on January 31, when the Department of Exiting the EU is expected to be wound up.
Responsibility for negotiating a new EU trade deal might then pass to an expanded Department for International Trade or — as some Whitehall insiders predict — to the Cabinet Office, where Michael Gove is a minister.
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