A controversial Whitehall restructuring is happening by stealthby Jessica Abrahams / February 20, 2020 / Leave a comment
Will Boris Johnson merge the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
With the post-Brexit reshuffle providing an opportunity for change, all eyes were on whether the PM would reappoint a secretary of state for international development, securing the department’s independence and a seat in the cabinet. To the community’s great relief, he did.
But he also did something else. Unnoticed by many, he merged the junior ministerial teams of the two departments so that, with the exception of the secretary of state, all of DFID’s ministers are now shared with the FCO. What does this tell us about the prospect of a full restructuring?
Riding on this issue is how—and how well—the UK spends its £14bn aid budget. By extension, it affects how much difference that money can make to lower-income countries and the strength of the UK’s soft power. Prospect has highlighted the problems with a merger before. And it is an issue the development community has been monitoring since Johnson rose to the premiership last summer. Top civil servants oppose the restructuring.
But Johnson’s latest move might indicate that DFID is not safe yet. By merging the ministerial teams, he appears to be laying the groundwork—if not for a full merger, then for an orchestrated erosion of DFID’s influence and control over the aid budget.
Moves in that direction have been happening for a while. The first joint DFID-FCO ministers were introduced by Theresa May in 2017 in an effort to get the two international departments working more closely together, but nobody predicted then that DFID would end up sharing all of its ministers. This is the first time that a department has had no standalone ministers of its own.
To be fair, to look at it from another perspective, the FCO is also sharing with DFID—but it is clear which department holds the reins here.
Although DFID has managed to hold on to its secretary of state for now, that role has been held by a succession of relatively inexperienced politicians who, in the few months they have held the post, have proved unable—or unwilling—to robustly defend it amid a Whitehall power struggle. Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was promoted to the position last week, has been…