Merging these government departments isn't just a bad plan for Britain—it's bad for Boris Johnson

Merging the foreign office and Dfid wouldn't only hand over the aid budget from one of the world’s most respected aid deliverers to one of the least—it also causes problems for the prime minister

February 12, 2020
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street. Photo: PA
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street. Photo: PA

It’s a seven-minute walk from the grand 19th century Gilbert Scott-designed Foreign and Commonwealth Office on King Charles Street to the less salubrious home of the Department for International Development on Whitehall, opposite a McDonalds and next door to a pub. The divide also exists in most countries in which the two government departments operate—they may be representing the same government, but they are often housed in separate buildings, or even in the same building but with different entrances.

The difference is not just geographical. The two departments often have different priorities; British national interests and the aid policies that are right for a developing nation are not always the same thing. When foreign office diplomats had responsibility for overseas development assistance—which ended in 1997 with the creation of Dfid—the former usually took precedence. The Pergau dam scandal in the 1990s—in which ministers approved more than £200m in aid against the advice of civil servants—was the most outrageous and high-profile example, but it was far from the exception. Separating the two departments was a way to recognise the often conflicting nature of their work.

But if the prime minister and foreign secretary get their way—and given they are the two most important people in British foreign policy it would be a surprise if they did not—then Britain’s rival international departments are about to merge.

Merge is actually the wrong word. This is a takeover by a foreign office that, at the top, has never come to terms with the removal of overseas development assistance (ODA) from its remit in 1997. Simon Macdonald, the current head of the foreign office, has made it clear to colleagues that he would welcome the return of Dfid. When I interviewed him in 2018, he emphasised the need for “clear leadership” in foreign policy.

That longing doesn’t necessarily exist further down the diplomatic chain. Diplomats in their 40s joined after the split—while they may have experienced Dfid and FCO staff butting against each other in the field, they have none of the rose-tinted memories of their seniors or aid staff obediently following orders from an ambassador.

The aid and development industry is, understandably, anxious. Dfid has had its issues over the past 22 years—at times it has been far too supportive of dictators and autocrats—but on the whole, British aid led by Dfid has been a success. It is regularly cited as one of the world’s most effective donors and is seen as a genuinely effective example of British soft power.

The aid industry’s arguments against the foreign office takeover have been made before—and they won’t make any differenceRather than asking whether the takeover is good for Britain’s international development work, then, it’s worth asking two different questions. Is the takeover good for the foreign office? And is it good for Number 10?

*** Let’s start with the foreign office. Certainly, the move is good for the foreign secretary. Dominic Raab will become a much more powerful figure: the preeminent foreign policy voice in government, around the cabinet table and at the national security council. It’s good for senior diplomats at King Charles Street, too, who will struggle to see the downside in expanding their empire.

Whether it’s good for the organisation as a whole is less clear-cut. There will be teething problems with reporting lines (will Dfid country directors now report to ambassadors rather than London?), while the scale of the budget increase (Dfid’s budget is more than 10 times that of the foreign office) could have consequences for the outlook of the whole organisation.

If the foreign office has responsibility for the aid budget it will also have responsibility for aid scandals, real or imagined, that find their way on to the front pages of right-wing tabloids. Those scandals may even increase. The foreign office already delivers a portion of British aid—and by every metric it does the job incredibly badly. Britain will be handing over control of its aid budget from one of the world’s most respected aid deliverers to one of the least.

And what about the prime minister? As foreign secretary, Johnson made clear he wanted control of Dfid. Shortly after he resigned he wrote the foreword to a report that called for a merger. So, it’s hardly a surprise that now he has the power to make that aspiration a reality he is probably going to do it.

But those who have worked on foreign policy from Downing Street rather than King Charles Street, are less convinced. Dfid is a great asset for a prime minister—big aid announcements have often been made by the PM rather than the relatively lowly international development secretary. As one former Downing Street official put it to me the takeover will “empower the foreign secretary at the expense of the prime minister.”

If the foreign office takes over Dfid, Boris Johnson will have increased the power of a political rival, reduced his own ability to make a splash in foreign policy, and diminished the UK’s soft power. The takeover would have been good for Boris Johnson the foreign secretary—it’s not so wise for Boris Johnson the prime minister.