Cuts to overseas aid would make headlines, but will no one challenge Westminster's cosy consenus

The Times had an arresting headline this morning – you can see it here – “Fox tells PM: Stop wasting billions on overseas aid”. However, there was nothing in the article or the minister’s leaked letter to the Prime Minister that supported the headline. In fact Dr Fox’s position is better conveyed by the following anodyne quote from his spokesman: “The defence secretary fully supports the principle of a 0.7% target on international aid. The issue is simply how best to reflect this in law.” The full, rather boring story, is found hereand it seems to be about Cabinet infighting, and not really about overseas aid at all.

If Dr Fox had come out and asked why the overseas aid budget should be spared cuts, unlike, let us say, education, or pointed out that not everyone thinks overseas aid is a good idea – well, that would have been news. But instead we have a wall of complacent cross-party agreement on this matter. Witness this statement from Harriet Harman:
Britain’s overseas aid saves lives in the developing world, but it is also in our national interest to tackle the underdevelopment which can cause conflict.

This Tory manifesto promise [to increase aid spending to 0.7% of national income by 2013] has been reiterated by the prime minister at international forums. He must show that Britain keeps its word.

The way to show they are not going to break this manifesto commitment is to bring in the promised legislation now. The government must keep the promise.

So, both sides in the House of Commons seems to be of the opinion that the manifesto pledge to increase overseas aid must be enshrined in law, making it unique among government spending priorities. 0.7% may not sound like very much, but it is worth keeping the figures in mind. The Daily Telegraph spells it out for us: “Overall aid spending will rise from £7.8billion this year to £11.5 billion, a 34 per cent real–terms increase.”

Perhaps £11.5 billion is not much in government terms, but where will all this money go? Harriet Harman asserts – without a shred of proof – that “aid saves lives”. There are plenty who do not agree, as I have pointed out before now.

When is this cosy Westminister consensus going to end? When are we going to be allowed to have a proper debate about the ethics of overseas aid?