Why did Andrew Mitchell reinstate aid to Rwanda on his last day at DfID?

The "aid success story" in Rwanda was key to detoxifying the Tory brand. Is that why Andrew Mitchell personally intervened to restore its budget, despite fears that the country is funding violent rebels in the Congo?

David Cameron used his appearance yesterday at the UN General Assembly to re-confirm British support for increasing aid to meet the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GDP. Coming at a time when billions have been cut from defence budgets dear to Tory hearts, and billions more will have to be cut from welfare, it is a remarkable display of international solidarity. Or is it? While there’s no doubting the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to the poor of Africa, it does not explain why ring-fencing aid is such a high priority in such difficult times.

International aid was critical in redefining the modern Tory party. Aid played, and continues to play, an important part in “Brand Cameron” – which is why there was such anguish when Mitchell went and spoilt it all with his “fucking pleb” rant against the police in Downing Street. As the Daily Mail commented this week: “He lavished billions on foreign aid to detoxify the Tories. Now Mr Mitchell's boorish tirade has set them back years.”

At the heart of the Tory aid project has been Rwanda – a country now boasting impressive growth rates, as it recovers from the genocide of 1994. Having left the Francophone zone behind and joined the Commonwealth, Rwandan president Paul Kagame was an ideal partner for the Conservative Party to embrace.  

All of which explains why Andrew Mitchell went through such contortions to reinstate part of the Rwandan aid budget on 4 September, his very last day in office as Secretary of State for International Development. It had been a job he loved – having served as Shadow Secretary for five years before the 2010 election. Before he left, Mitchell took one final decision. Without consulting his senior officials, I understand, he reversed the cuts that had been made to the Rwandan aid budget less than two months earlier.

The decision flew in the face of the professional advice he had received, and Britain’s Western aid partners have privately expressed their outrage at his action. Mitchell’s successor, Justine Greening, was left struggling to pick up the pieces. 

The initial aid cut had been announced against Mitchell’s judgement, and was only implemented following considerable pressure from Washington, Bonn and the Hague, which had already made the cuts. It followed extensive evidence from UN experts that Rwandan troops and weaponry were slipping across the country’s border to support some of the most notorious rebels operating in Eastern Congo – the M23 (pdf). Their report was backed by evidence supplied by Human Rights Watch.

Andrew Mitchell resisted imposing the sanction as long as possible, but had finally caved in. The decision was grudgingly taken and slipped out in a press release from DFID on 27 July, while the British press and public were immersed in the spectacle of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Just 53 days after the cut was announced, it was reversed. Explaining this decision, Mitchell said that following the delay in British aid: “. . . I sought assurances from President Kagame that Rwanda was adhering to the strict partnership principles.” President Kagame, a past-master at dealing with Western donors, provided the kind of vacuous assurances he has repeated down the years. Mitchell believed them, announcing as he left for the Chief Whip’s office that: “Britain will partially restore its general budget support to Rwanda.”

The UK remains Rwanda’s largest bilateral aid donor. What is so remarkable about the tenacity of British support, is not that it not just that it flies in the face of years of evidence of Rwandan repression at home or Kagame’s backing for Congolese rebels. It also ignores the evidence of the danger Rwandan government death squads pose to exiles living in London.

In May last year the Metropolitan police took the extraordinary step of issuing several Rwandans with “Threats to Life Warning Notices.” (See an example of one of them here, with personal information redacted.) These stated, in no uncertain terms, that they were in danger of being killed by Paul Kagame’s government.

“Reliable intelligence states that the Rwandan Government poses an imminent threat to your life. The threat could come in any form. You should be aware that othr high profile cases where action such as this has been conducted in the past. Conventional and unconventional means have been used.”

While the Met said it could not provide round the clock protection, it instructed the recipients of these warnings not to carry weapons. Instead a series of measures, including burglar alarms, changes to daily routine and the like were suggested to the frightened exiles.

The British fascination with Rwanda dates back to Clare Short’s time, when she was given the development ministry by Tony Blair following the 1997 election. More than a decade later, long after losing her post, she still took holidays in the country. “The wonderful thing about Rwanda” she explained in 2008 “is that people are full of hope and determination to build a better future.” This, despite repeated warnings from human rights groups of Rwandan political repression, the silencing of critical journalists and repeated interventions in Congo.

Tony Blair took a similar position, continuing to support President Paul Kagame after leaving office through his Africa Governance Initiative. Blair still works closely with the Rwandan president, visiting the country earlier this month.

But Labour’s support only laid the foundations for the Tories, who were soon also won over by Kagame’s cool intelligence and free-market principles. Andrew Mitchell was among the first to be charmed, grasping the part this small Central African nation could play in re-branding the Tory party.

In 2007 he formed Project Umubano. Working in Rwanda and that other war-torn African state, Sierra Leone, the project claims to have sent 230 volunteers – many of them MPs and cabinet ministers - off to sunny climes to do a spot of teaching, building and good works. Stephen Crabb MP was an early convert, describing Kagame as “one of Africa's most competent leaders.”

Among their activities has been the encouragement of that most English of exports, the love of cricket. A Rwandan Cricket Academy was formed and the annual match between Umubano volunteers and a side from the Rwanda Cricket Association was a highlight of every visit.

Umubano was more than just a knock-about holiday in the sun; its real aim was to detoxify the Tory brand. Rwanda provided the prefect backdrop for Cameron to launch his development aid programme in 2007, even if he was criticised for leaving his flooded Witney constituency to do so. As a senior Tory MP complained at the time, "Rwanda always looked a bit like a stunt. Now it looks like a very ill-timed one."

Cameron’s critics were wrong. The strategy paid off, softening the Tory image. The links with Rwanda saw Paul Kagame attend the Tory Party conference in 2007, lavishing praise on his hosts, describing Umubano as an “unprecedented” example of aid.

Just how sensitive the Mitchell camp is about Project Rwanda was recently revealed by the Telegraph journalist, Lucy Kinder, who described how in 2009, as a young volunteer with Umubano she was mercilessly bullied by Mitchell’s staff. Kinder had written an article which was mildly critical. It produced fury from Mitchell and reduced some of his senior aides to tears. Anything that might besmirch the Tory image had to resisted at all costs. "You have betrayed the trust of me and the Conservative Party," Mitchell told her.

The complex web of relations between Cameron, Mitchell and Rwanda perhaps explains why the Prime Minister has continued to support his Chief Whip throughout the “fucking plebs” scandal. The success of “Brand Cameron” owes much to the people of Rwanda. Ditching the architect of Umubano could call into question the Prime Minister’s loyalty to his closet friends and undermine his carefully crafted image.

Paul Kagame. Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Hale is a pseudonym.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage