The United States came under fire from a surprising quarter yesterday when the arch-Atlanticist Michael Howard lambasted Washington for imposing trade barriers which devastate the developing world.
Days after Tony Blair pledged to champion the cause of Africa, the Tory leader rounded on the US for lecturing the world about free trade while upholding protectionist policies.
Speaking at a Tory summit to promote trade justice, Mr Howard said: "It is a terrible indictment of our progress in this area that the poorest countries' share of world trade has dropped by almost a half in the last 20 years. But is it any wonder when those countries which advocate free trade don't always live up to their rhetoric?"
Mr Howard cited George Bush's decision to impose tariffs to protect the US steel industry and agricultural subsidies in the US, Japan and China. "Subsidies to farmers in rich countries total $300bn [£160bn] a year, more than the combined income of the whole of sub-Saharan Africa," he said. "Cotton is crucial to certain west African countries - Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Togo - and almost the only commodity they can export.
"The richer countries should act in accordance with what they know to be true: free trade spreads prosperity. Protectionism does not."
Mr Howard's remarks are likely to cause some surprise because he is one of the most passionate admirers of the US at Westminster. In the past year, however, he has taken a strong interest in the developing world and recently sanctioned a speech by his shadow development secretary, John Bercow, in which he castigated the capitalist west.
The Tory leader made clear that he would be committed to Britain's overseas aid budget as prime minister. But Labour claimed that this sat ill with the party's recent spending plans which held out the prospect of a cut in the aid budget.
Paul Boateng, the chief secretary to the Treasury, said: "Just two weeks ago Oliver Letwin committed the Conservatives to cutting spending by £18bn in the first two years of a Conservative government. He said he would find the money by a real-terms cut on departments across government - specifically including international aid. Freezing DfID's [Department for International Development] cash budget means a real-terms cut of £229m in just two years. That is the equivalent of eliminating the aid budgets for the Sudan, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia."
Oxfam gave a guarded response to Mr Howard's speech. Penny Fowler, who spoke at the Central Office event, said: "Rich countries should dismantle their trade barriers in order to give developing counties the opportunity to trade their way out of poverty. However, a completely open market is not the answer because it will not help those who need it most. Free trade is not necessarily fair trade."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004