Britain on Thursday defended swingeing cuts planned to its overseas aid budget after an outpouring of protests that it marks a life-threatening retreat on the government's ambitions to play a global role after Brexit.

Breaking an election manifesto promise, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government says it needs to slash spending on aid because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But critics pointed out that the Treasury was releasing billions elsewhere for other priorities, including military spending, even as it pleads pandemic poverty in the budget overall.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Breaking an election promise, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's cabinet says it needs to slash overseas aid spending because of the coronavirus pandemic. Johnson also emeged from self-isolation after contact with an MP who tested positive for the virus. Photo: AFP / Tolga Akmen

One junior minister in the Foreign Office quit her post in protest.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insisted the cut was temporary given the economic crisis brought on by Covid-19, and vowed no retreat in UK leadership across aid priorities such as girls' education, famine relief and preventive health programmes.

"Even in the toughest economic times, we will continue that mission, we will continue to lead," Raab told parliament.

The sum lost for aid is roughly ₤4 billion ($5.3 billion) from a ₤15 billion budget -- the same awarded to a new development fund for the north of England, where Johnson's Conservatives won seats at last year's election on a promise to "get Brexit done."

British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak
British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak walks out of 11 Downing Street, before heading to the House of Commons on Wednesday to present his spending review for a pandemic-ravaged economy and a future outside the EU. Photo: AFPTV / Arman SOLDIN

Mark Sheard, chief executive of the aid group World Vision UK, said the government's spending priorities would come at "the cost of lives" just as it prepares to take over the G7 presidency and host global summits on climate change and education next year.

"The UK's commitment to ending poverty worldwide has always been something of which we could be rightly proud, but just when global leadership is most needed we are stepping back," he said.

By cutting aid, the government had "relinquished its right to talk about 'Global Britain' leading the world", he added.

However, Raab underlined British goals for the G7 and COP26 climate summit, and said 2021 would be "a year of leadership for Global Britain as a force for good around the world".

Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab
Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab arrives at 10 Downing Street on Thursday after the government unveiled plans to slash the foreign aid budget to help mend its coronavirus-battered finances, prompting one minister to quit. Photo: AFP / Tolga Akmen

Criticism has come too from religious leaders including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the leader of the worldwide Anglican church, who called it "shameful and wrong", as well as five former prime ministers.

Most pertinently for Johnson ahead of a parliamentary vote to amend the aid target, several Conservatives have broken ranks to join opposition parties in vowing to oppose it, pointing out that the UK risks falling foul of Joe Biden's incoming US presidency.

"As president-elect Biden commits to a new era of Western leadership, here we are about to mark the start of our G7 presidency by cutting our overseas aid budget," Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the House of Commons defence committee, told parliament.

"Downgrading our soft power programmes will leave vacuums in some of the poorest parts of the world that will further poverty and instability," the Conservative MP said.

"It is likely to see China and Russia extending their authoritarian influence by taking our place."

Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said the reduction would be "the cause of 100,000 preventable deaths, mainly among children".

The government says it is not rowing back on global commitments as it starts a new chapter outside the European Union, pointing in part to its involvement in research and future not-for-profit distribution of a vaccine against Covid-19.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak told Sky News that Britain was facing an "economic emergency" because of the pandemic.

"I don't think anyone could characterise our level of support for the poorest countries as turning our back," he added.

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