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11 November 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:10am

Put out the welcome mat for Mugabe

A former Tory minister suggests the Zimbabwean leader should retire to the UK.

By Sholto Byrnes

Here’s one that’s unlikely to become coalition policy: the former Tory chief whip Lord Renton suggested during a debate yesterday that “the best way for us to help and assist the economic recovery of Zimbabwe” might be “to offer President Mugabe a safe, comfortable and well-looked-after home in Britain”.

The idea is not as daft as it sounds. It is in his country’s interests that Robert Mugabe stand down as soon as possible, but he is no fool. He will want to ensure that if he goes, he does not end up exchanging the comforts of retirement for a prison cell. As I wrote in the Independent last year:

Efforts to bring Mugabe to the International Court of Justice will not increase the likelihood of his voluntarily relinquishing power (and there is no imminent prospect of his leaving in any other way) . . . Refusing to seek legal vengeance for Robert Mugabe’s crimes may be hard. But if one day it helps an old dictator become an old ex-dictator, it may prove far sweeter than revenge.

A managed exile with guaranteed immunity is an obvious solution. Previously it was thought likely that Mugabe might seek to retire to east Asia. Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia are all regular destinations for him and his entourage, and have the inestimable advantage of being places where autocratic rule is not regarded as so objectionable.

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But Britain, as Lord Renton generously put it, might also be to his tastes. For Mugabe, like various other leaders of post-colonial countries (Idi Amin springs instantly to mind), has long had a love-hate relationship with the former imperial master.

He may have attacked Tony Blair’s administration for being a government of “gay gangsters”, but another former Tory minister, George Walden, recalls that his attitude towards Britain used to be quite different. Walden was a senior Foreign Office civil servant at the time of the negotiations that led to Zimbabwe’s independence; he remembers the Mugabe of that time as a “venomous, stonewall” Maoist. After he came to power, however, “everything about him seemed to change for the better”. Walden described the new, improved version in the NS two years ago:

Charm is not a word I associated with Mugabe, yet when Margaret Thatcher gave a dinner in his honour at Downing Street and praised the Marxist terrorist’s work for peace and reconciliation (after vowing never to negotiate with terrorists), he received her tribute gracefully, charmed to be there, just as he was to be charmed by his knighthood later. Thereafter he worked with the British to implement the Lancaster House Agreement, including its provisions to pay the colonialists’ pensions and refrain from changing the constitution for ten years.

So the UK could be a congenial exile for Mugabe. As for where he would live, why not the Wentworth Estate, where General Pinochet was made to feel so comfortable while the Labour government was wriggling out of having to extradite the Chilean dictator to Spain?

If the courts can’t get Mugabe, some might think retirement to an area usually populated by showbiz types such as Russ Abbott, Cliff Richard and Bruce Forsyth would be punishment enough to be getting on with.