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Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that the Department for International Development (DfID) would merge with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in September is more than an institutional rearrangement of the international relations machinery in post-Brexit Global Britain (AE 408/20). The move has been long promised, and Johnson says it will strengthen the United Kingdom’s ability to project itself abroad as a force for good. However, many analysts believe its timing at least was intended to shore up the PM’s support base following criticism of his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Johnson appealed to right-wing scepticism by calling overseas aid “some giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interests”.

The merger was announced before the findings of a review led by historian Lord Bew into British foreign policy and its instruments – ordered by Johnson – has been completed. Development professionals disputed the PM’s claim there had been “massive consultation over a long period of time”. Health secretary Matt Hancock let slip that the move had not been discussed in cabinet, suggesting it was the work of Johnson’s small but powerful Cabinet Office, led by his senior adviser Dominic Cummings.

The merger is important for a large number of stakeholders, including partner governments, aid recipients, development finance institutions, civil society organisations and others who have become used to working with DfID and entities under its control such as the commercially focused CDC Group. Critics question whether FCO diplomats have the tools to structure aid deals, even if they see political advantage in leveraging the budget. An increasing proportion of the aid budget is already spent by other departments including the FCO – critics say with much less rigour than by DfID.

DfID has been progressively turbocharged since overseas aid gained a cabinet seat under the redoubtable Clare Short in Tony Blair’s 1997 New Labour government. Short fell out with Blair over the sale of military radar to Tanzania, which DfID argued lacked an appropriate development case and governance safeguards. This is precisely the sort of soft finance-sweetened deal critics fear could return, as Whitehall seeks to leverage DfID’s £15bn ($18.8bn) budget, which dwarfs the FCO’s £1.1bn core spending.

While spending cuts in the last decade mean France has three times the number of diplomats in Africa, Britain’s laudable commitment to maintaining aid flows at 0.7% of GDP has buttressed DfID’s claims to be a world leader, with an emphasis on improved governance. Concerns have been expressed by Conservative grandees as well as opposition Labour and aid community sceptics that political interests will undermine this rigorous approach.

The government is expected to give details of the new arrangements as it adjusts to meet the demands of a smaller post-Covid economy and negotiate the complicated terms of leaving the European Union (which includes reshaping EU-UK development cooperation). Former DfID minister Rory Stewart – who stood against Johnson for the Conservative leadership in 2019 – wrote in Prospect magazine that “there are many reasons to be concerned” about the FCO and DfID, but the solution was not to merge the two. Stewart saw a wider problem, “that the UK has no confident vision for what it intends to do in the world”. He added: “Playing budgetary games by trying to pretend that normal embassy expenditure is about poverty alleviation simply undermines the UK’s reputation in international development without answering the more fundamental questions on priorities.”

Some Global Britain die-hards had hoped that Johnson would go even further, by creating a super ministry that also incorporated the Department for International Trade. Johnson has avoided that and says he will stick to the 0.7% global aid allocation, but the UK’s partners are waiting for answers on how post-Brexit Britain and its dense networks of commercial, aid and policy relationships will emerge.