Boris Johnson is facing a fresh Conservative revolt over Britain’s spending abroad, as MPs warn that up to 20 British Council outposts face closure due to a funding shortfall.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, some 100 MPs, including around 20 Tories, claim that the closures would fly in the face of Mr Johnson’s promises of a “Global Britain” after Brexit, dealing “a severe blow to our soft power”.
The intervention comes after a behind-the-scenes effort by senior Conservatives to persuade the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to fund a £10 million funding gap faced by the British Council as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The body, which has been given hundreds of million pounds in taxpayer loans and grants, carries out cultural relations work across the world, including by running exhibitions and training programmes and funding scholarships for students from developing countries to study in the UK.
The letter, organised by John Baron, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on the British Council, and Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, warns: “The British Council will be required to hollow out some of its programmes and close its in-country activity in at least five countries and perhaps as many as 20.”
The signatories include the former cabinet ministers Karen Bradley and Andrew Mitchell, together with Julian Knight, the chairman of the Commons culture committee, and Julian Lewis, who chairs Parliament’s intelligence and security committee. It has also been signed by Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, and Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader.
They state: “Even closing five overseas offices would represent the largest single set of closures in the British Council’s near 90-year history, and would not be compatible with ‘Global Britain’ or the ambitions within the Integrated Review.
“It would also represent a strategic error in that it would deal a severe blow to our soft power and leave a vacuum which other countries will be quick to fill.
“We would urge you and your Cabinet colleagues to look again at the resources required to stop these closures and their implication for Britain’s influence around the world.”
In a letter to Mr Tugendhat last month, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, pointed out that his department was providing the British Council loans of up to £150m during the pandemic and that the body was due to benefit from a £189m funding settlement in 2021-22.
Yesterday an FCDO spokesman said: “We are fully committed to the British Council as demonstrated by our financial support worth over £500 million during a uniquely challenging time.
“As the Integrated Review made clear, we value the influence of the British Council and we will continue to support the Council in playing a leading role in enhancing UK soft power through its work overseas.
“It is for the British Council to comment on their plans for its overseas network.”