Serious questions remain for Andrew Mitchell on aid to Rwanda

Why did he choose to reinstate aid to Rwanda on his last day as International Development Secretary?

A month of feverish speculation about one of Andrew Mitchell’s first actions as Chief Whip – the infamous incident at Downing Street – eventually led to his decision to resign the post.

Yet there has been much less focus on one of his final actions as Secretary of State for International Development – despite far more serious ramifications. As he prepared to leave his post in the Department for International Development, Mr Mitchell ended a freeze on aid to Rwanda. As a result, £16m was granted to the country in a move which left the UK internationally isolated.

While the move received some coverage – including by the New Statesman here, it did not receive widespread coverage.

It reversed a previous decision made by Andrew Mitchell, in common with allies in the European Union and beyond, following intensification of fighting in Eastern Congo - fighting in which the M23 rebel group played a substantial role.

It is not clear why the UK government made the decision to reinstate aid on the day Mitchell left the department, why it made the decision alone and what, if any, consultation took place with European Union countries who, increasingly, co-ordinate policies and payments with the UK government.

It is also a puzzle that any Secretary of State should make such a sensitive decision on his last day in the job, since the issue was not especially time sensitive and could have been considered, with appropriate discussion with allies, by his successor.

The decision became more sensitive still within a month. A Reuters news report said that concerns have been set out by UN experts in a report due out in November that Rwanda’s defence chief is effectively leading a rebel group against its neighbour’s Government. The M23 rebels have been fighting government forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo for much of the year, a key factor in the initial suspension of aid in July. Rwanda has strongly denied the suggestions.

Andrew Mitchell’s actions in restoring aid moved against the tide of international opinion and left Britain isolated.

The question is: why?

In a parliamentary answer last month, the government confirmed they remain “very concerned by continuing reports of Rwandan support for the M23 rebels, by the humanitarian situation, and by reports that the M23 rebels are setting up a parallel administration, and are committing human rights abuses.”

Asked by Cardiff West Labour MP Kevin Brennan why aid was restored despite those concerns, the Prime Minister said: “We should be very frank and firm with President Kagame and the Rwandan regime that we do not accept that they should be supporting militias in the Congo or elsewhere. I have raised that issue personally with the President, but I continue to believe that investing in Rwanda’s success, as one of those countries in Africa that is showing that the cycle of poverty can be broken and that conditions for its people can be improved, is something we are right to do.”

This response does not sit well with the decision to suspend aid in July.

Certainly, the Foreign Office is sensitive to continued concern on the matter. Minister Hugo Swire, speaking in a debate on the Democratic Republic of Congo on 23 October said in reponse to me pressing him on the matter:

The decision to disburse £8m of general budget support while reprogramming the remaining £8 million to targeted programmes on education and food security took account of the fact that withholding the money would impact on the very people we aim to help. By reprogramming some of the general budget support, we signalled our continuing concern about Rwanda’s actions in eastern DRC.

I am sure that the honourable gentleman was not trying to make some kind of cheap political point about the issue. The point is that we are committed to helping the poorest people in the world and we believe that there are people in Rwanda who are still deserving of our support. The decision to continue that support was taken across Government.

Andrew Mitchell’s decision to reinstate aid amended the package to Rwanda: part of the aid was “reprogrammed” to targeted programmes. This indicates worries that the funding could have been use inappropriately had a simple reinstatement of aid been made.

It is very welcome that Andrew Mitchell will be giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development on 8 November on his decision to reinstate aid to Rwanda. Substantial questions remain for him to answer.

Ian Lucas is Shadow Minister for Africa and the Middle East and the Labour MP for Wrexham

Andrew Mitchell photographed after his resignation as Chief Whip. Photograph: Getty Images

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

Getty Images.
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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear