They tried to cloak themselves in compassion by chucking vast sums of foreign aid around the planet but face growing political concern as cash-strapped public services struggle at home.
This was entirely predictable.
When the Tories won power in 2010 and unleashed austerity, Britain gave away £8.5billion in foreign aid.
Last year, this figure surged to £14billion — despite the slashing of domestic police numbers and collapsing social care.
As the economy keeps growing, so will these foreign handouts, leaving the Tories impaled on a hook of their own making.
They agreed to the crazy idea of hitting a discredited United Nations target ignored by many other rich nations, such as France, Japan and the US. Their foolishness means Britain must give away a fixed 0.7 per cent of national income at a time when global poverty is plummeting due to capitalism, scientific progress and technological advances.
Now some Tories are trying to find ways to keep their promise to hit this aid target, while spending the money in fresh ways. That exposes the shallowness of ministers’ posturing as heroic saviours of the poor and dispossessed.
International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt told the Cabinet last month this level of aid spending was “unsustainable” and money should be shifted to domestic priorities.
She has floated the idea of building new ships for the Royal Navy from the aid budget by using them for humanitarian operations.
And she knows the issue will rear up in any forthcoming Tory leadership battle.
Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson chipped in, saying Britain needs more control over what counts as foreign aid under international rules — and that it should go towards boosting British foreign policy objectives.
His move was linked to a report by former soldier turned Tory MP Bob Seely arguing that Britain should simply define its own aid spending to include our “strategic goals”.
Yet they all miss the obvious solution. Just DITCH the target and abandon the 2015 law binding us to it — one that makes the Department for International Development (DfID) the only ministry that must explain itself to MPs if it fails to spend enough.
This silly UN target is an historic anachronism devised by campaigners half a century ago based on flawed, outdated economic data.
It makes no sense to rely on a fixed spending target based on national income over needs in poor places — as predicted by a former Tory Chancellor, respected Labour peers and a British economist who won the Nobel Prize for their expertise in poverty.
One horrified DfID minister confessed to me he thought spending was at least TRIPLE what it should be — yet whenever he tried to thwart wasteful projects, they simply bounced back from officials on to his desk again.
It was no surprise to find those pen-pushers in the poverty relief department are among the best-paid bureaucrats in Whitehall.
This torrent of cash has fuelled a self-serving aid industry stuffed with fat cats on six-figure salaries in charities and private firms.
These people are so focused on protecting their valuable brands that some of the best-known organisations covered up abuse, rape, malpractice and theft.
Their political paymasters pose as munificent saviours of the world. Yet as I have seen on three continents, much of the money taken from taxpayers is blown on ludicrous projects based on bogus statistics — and ends up doing more harm than good by fostering conflict and undermining democracy.
I was in Ghana last year, investigating a UK-funded scheme to pour cash into a few villages to prove aid works.
“Far from breaking the poverty trap, the project does not appear to have reduced poverty or hunger at all,” concluded DfID’s own report.
Yet we give cash to fast-emerging powerhouses such as China and India.
We give cash to countries riddled with corruption, such as Uganda, where I found officials inflating the number of refugees to grab more funds from foreign donors.
We give cash to places that have space programmes, even their own aid agencies.
And we pour cash into countries run by gangsters spending huge sums on weapons — and in Rwanda’s case, on the brutal president’s favourite Premier League football club, Arsenal.
Even North Korea, which runs massive death camps under a bloodstained family dictatorship, has been a beneficiary of UK aid. This is what happens when politicians prioritise spin and spending over needs and reality.
Holland has showed a country can get off this hook. It abandoned the target and found the anticipated fuss died down quickly.
The shift led to renewed focus on efficient spending, with fewer countries receiving donations. “We were surprised it was so easily dealt with,” one insider told me.
Dutch spending has dipped from 0.75 per cent of national income in 2015 to 0.6 per cent last year and will fall again over the coming years.
Let us welcome the dawning realisation in Westminster that fixating on an aid target has been a dire failure.
Instead of tinkering with definitions — or deceiving voters by slipping domestic spending under the foreign aid banner — politicians should accept their mistake and abandon that daft target
- Ian Birrell is a former speechwriter for David Cameron and reporter on foreign affairs.
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