LONDON — Boris Johnson announced plans on Tuesday to merge his government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development in a move designed to unite the U.K.’s development and diplomatic priorities.
The prime minister said the coronavirus pandemic had shown that aid and foreign policy are “one and the same endeavor” and complained that the work of the two departments does not have a unified structure of oversight.
“One cardinal lesson of the pandemic is that distinctions between diplomacy and development are artificial and outdated,” he told the House of Commons. “I have decided to merge DfID with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to create a new department, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and this will unite our aid with our diplomacy and bring them together in our international effort.”
It means the foreign secretary will have the power to decide where aid goes, with the overall strategy overseen by the National Security Council, chaired by the prime minister. The new department will be formally established in September. Johnson insisted the aid budget would not be cut, but the current development secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, will lose her job.
The move will spark anger from foreign aid campaign groups, which have warned that abolishing DfID — which was created two decades ago — would mean “turning our backs on the world’s poorest people.”
Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, a former development secretary, was outraged at the announcement. “Abolishing DfID would be a quite extraordinary mistake,” he told POLITICO. He said it would “destroy one of the most effective and respected engines of international development anywhere in the world” and prompt top figures to seek work elsewhere, “at a stroke destroying a key aspect of Global Britain.”
He also said it was “completely unnecessary as the prime minister exercises full control over DfID’s strategy and priorities through the National Security Council.”
Labour chair of the Commons international development committee Sarah Champion said the timing of the announcement, amid the coronavirus crisis, “couldn’t be worse.” But Conservative chair of the foreign affairs select committee Tom Tugendhat offered a cautious welcome to the plans, noting he was glad the foreign secretary “will be given more strategic oversight when it comes to key aspects of overseas influence and spending.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer accused Johnson of “the tactics of pure distraction” as the U.K. suffers the effects of the coronavirus crisis.
Johnson set the wheels in motion for the move when he reshuffled his top team in February, stretching the role of every Foreign Office minister across the two departments except for the secretaries of state, and asking DfID missions in other countries to report directly to Foreign Office ambassadors.
The merger will also spark fears that the government will link development cash to British trade and commercial interests in the future, as part of its review into U.K. strategic defense and foreign policy.
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