Hugo Rifkind

This really isn’t how Robert Mugabe would run a referendum

The Prime Minister is behaving with conciliation to the point of deference. Plus: MPs’ tax returns

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

It is not what Robert Mugabe would do. Calm down. These are ‘spiv Robert Mugabe antics’, said the Tory backbencher Nigel Evans, of the government’s alleged £9 million mailshot making the case for staying in the European Union. But no. They aren’t.

If David Cameron was behaving like Robert Mugabe, then he wouldn’t just be sending a leaflet to your house. He’d be sending a gang of thugs to your house, who all claimed to have fought in the second world war and yet had an average age of about 22, and then they’d come into your house and make you leave your house, and say it was their house. And Cameron would say, ‘Yes, it is their house,’ and the High Court would say ‘No it isn’t,’ and Cameron would either ignore the High Court altogetaher or call it a racist. I’m just saying. It’s important to get these things in perspective.

Given the farce of Greece, I daresay it would have been perfectly possible for Zimbabwe to have joined the EU and indeed the euro sometime around 2001, provided Goldman Sachs had been on hand to do the figures. A lucky escape for all of us. Had it, though, and were it now holding a referendum about whether it ought to leave, then I’m not sure that Robert Mugabe would have given his political opponents free rein to disagree with him while remaining in his cabinet. Rather, on past form, I suspect he might have massacred 20,000 of them and then spent 35 years denying it. Look, I don’t mean to go overboard, but I hope you’re getting the message. David Cameron on the EU: not as bad as Mugabe.

In fact, when it comes to the EU, Cameron is behaving with conciliation to the point of feeble deference, and it’s a measure of the sheer foaminess of his opponents that they’ve managed to convince themselves of the opposite. According to John Redwood, the leaflet is ‘an abuse of public money’ and ‘an insult to electors’ and is going to drive more people to vote ‘leave’, anyway. In which case, John, it’s a little hard to see what you’re complaining about.

The government did the same in Scotland in 2014, during the referendum on whether Scotland should leave the UK, because it was the government’s stated policy — on which they had been elected — that Scotland shouldn’t. Scottish nationalists did, indeed, make a small fuss at the time, but shouldn’t have done, as the Scottish government was simultaneously publishing its own white paper on why independence was a good idea. Which was, in turn, the basis on which they had been elected. Likewise, in 1975, having pledged in his manifesto to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EEC and then hold a referendum, Harold Wilson did so, and sent out a leaflet. Are we seeing a theme?

This is like that. Cameron was elected on a promise to renegotiate our membership today, and then to hold a referendum about it. You may feel his renegotiation was feeble, as indeed do I, but that’s hardly the point. It’s his, and thus his government’s, and thus it’s hardly odd for that government to try to sell it. Never has he pretended to be neutral, nor should he, because he isn’t. Allowing dissent in cabinet was an expedient act of weakness, but that dissent does not indicate a government on the fence. Merely some people in it, who disagree with it and are fortunate enough not to be expected to resign. None of this is complicated.

Really everybody knows all of this. They just pretend. There are credible arguments for leaving the EU, I suppose, but it’s terribly revealing how much more comfortable advocates of that position are when they have the opportunity to fabricate small-scale procedural fights like this instead. It is as if for some reason they are keen to make the coming referendum appear to be about almost anything other than that which it is actually is.

House of low achievers?

Anyway, tax returns. I’m all for MPs having to publish them. Given the existence of the register of members’ interests, it ought not to make any difference anyway.

Alan Duncan got a flaming the other day for suggesting that tax transparency risked seeing the Commons ‘stuffed full of low achievers’, without ‘a hint of wealth in their lives’. Obviously this was crass, because wealth and achievement do not go hand in hand. Policemen are not inherently low achievers, for example. Nor playwrights. Nor soldiers. Nor vicars. Nor even MPs.

Had he spoken instead of the potential for wealth, he might have been on to something. Or to put that another way, however much they currently earn, it is very easy to imagine that both David Cameron and George Osborne could be earning as much in other walks of life. I doubt that’s purely down to their backgrounds, much as they will have helped. The same was clearly true of Ed Balls, for example. And Gordon Brown. I rather think it might be true of John McDonnell.

Only it’s not true of all of them. In what other capacity could Boris Johnson possibly rival the half million-ish he takes home in his combined capacity as a hack and a politician? I mean, he’s not going to be the CEO of Deutsche Bank, is he? Likewise Jeremy Corbyn. By temperament as much as ability, what could he have done, in another life, and even one more privileged, which would have allowed him to rival the salary of an MP? I can see him as an angry history teacher in a public school, I suppose. A kindly, overpaid zookeeper. A dentist of last resort. Other than that, I’m stumped.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • seangrainger

    The headline is childish and stupid. I and I guess a number of readers pay — that’s pay — for the magazine because you have time to do some research and come up with some informed comment. If you can’t do that tell the editor and suggest he gets Peter Hitchens or even Owen Jones to knock out 1,000 words instead.

  • Yorkman99

    Cameron is saving Mugabe’s tactics until next month when the thugs are deployed at polling stations.

    • OmnipotentWizard

      Is that the level of argument we can expect from the OUTter – it looks like we’ll be stay in then.

  • Mr B J Mann

    “fabricate small-scale procedural fights like this instead”

    Like the government misappropriating £9 million of the taxpayers cash to boost their contribution to the Remain budget by a mere 15 times the Leave one?!

    And so doubing the Remain expenditure compared to Leave.

    Very small-scale.

    If Cameron was afraid the public weren’t aware “the government” supported Remain he could have asked Remain to check they were going to mention the fact in their own literature!

  • ThatOneChap

    I wouldn’t say that David Cameron was acting like Mugabe, but he’s not exactly acting as one would expect the Head of Government of a democratic country facing, quite frankly, the largest constitutional decision ever directly posed to the British people to act either.

    • OmnipotentWizard

      He is acting in what he judges to be the best interests of the UK – you may not agree with him but he has never pretended to be neutral on the subject.

  • WFC

    Not sure I agree.

    Cameron and Mugabe are both very good at running campaigns based on “project fear”.

    The difference is that Mugabe ensures that his “project fear” is based on reality, whilst Cameron is happy for his “project fear” to be based on fantasy.

    • OmnipotentWizard

      Its the “project fear” red herring again!!!

  • Tamerlane

    One MP makes a reference.No one else. Slow news week?

    • Mc

      Nah, it’s a slow Rifkind mind that is to blame, not a slow news week.

  • WTF

    Of course Cameron wouldn’t send thugs to your home, he doesn’t have to as he has the apparatus of the state to use against the opposition. In western democracies, the ruling party has all manner of mechanisms to subvert democracy without using force and does so all the time.

    Hiding or delaying release of awkward facts from the other camp, using civil service resources for your own political purposes, delaying reports like the Chilcott Enquiry, there’s a multitude of examples where those in power can skew opinion without using thugs. A good day to bury bad news perhaps, refusal to debate with the opposition and these propaganda booklets disguised as public information.

    Mugabe has to resort to real fear as his people have nothing of value that can be removed but all Cameron has to to do is fear bait over the value of the pound, vacation costs, inflation rates, trade opportunities, jobs and the like. Of course its all lies and unsubstantiated but it can be more effective than a visit by a couple of henchmen from Tory HQ !

    • tjamesjones

      Yes of course, it’s just like Mugabe after all.

    • OmnipotentWizard

      Most things come out in the end and prove to be not contentious. Chilcott will show the Government as naive rather than devious – no big deal.

      Some things wait a long time – for example we only recently found out that Thatcher DID know the General Belgrano was NOT returning to port when she ordered it sunk.

  • Tom M

    “………Allowing dissent in cabinet……….”
    Are you seriously suggesting that for a matter of constitutional importance such as this these people shouldn’t have the right to dissent and publically?
    What is wrong with this situation is that The Government doesn’t have a position on this. It is only part of the cabinet who agree. You can’t seriously ask for those in the Cabinet who wish to vote “out” to argue for “in” before the vote. For God’s sake get a grip Rifkind.

    To be scrupulously fair Cameron and his supporters should have presented their assessments for remaining “in” and the others should have stated their position and everybody argued their case on that basis.

  • antoncheckout

    “that dissent does not indicate a government on the fence”
    You’re rather missing the point. What Cameron regards as ‘the government’ is neither here nor there. What is to the point is that an avowedly pro-EU Cameron campaigning in a general Election on a pro-EU platform would not have had (nor would have in the future) a majority to form any government at all.
    As to: ‘There are credible arguments for leaving the EU, I suppose’ – You ‘suppose’?? Are you really a journalist? Or just another Daddy’s boy?

    • tjamesjones

      “What Cameron regards as ‘the government’ is neither here nor there.”

      Whatever can that mean? Is there some other government that Cameron has failed to spot?

      I’m pretty sure Cameron campaigned on the commitment to (a) negotiate some new position with the EU and (b) offer a referendum on that basis. I’m pretty sure that’s what he has done.

    • sebastian2

      Cameron was elected, partly at least, on a promise to drastically reduce immigration. This promise is in tatters and his alleged renegotiation does nothing to address this. The opposite actually: immigration will soar. Cameron gave the impression that he wouldn’t pay an EU surcharge – cue prime-ministerial histrionic indignation – then when the dust died down, he paid it in two instalments. He’s weakened the Armed Forces; the UK Border Force is starved of resources; as are the Police. But, we are assured as 500 or so jihadists roam freely around the continent, the borderless EU (and Cameron) offers greater, not less, security. His government’s de-radicalisation efforts are of little effect on those that need it most – salafist/wahabbist mohammedans. They are totally untouched. Almost acting with impunity. Foreign criminals we don’t want at any price are difficult or impossible to deport. He hasn’t fixed that and closer ties with the EU won’t fix it either.

      Had all this been in the manifesto or reasonably assumable from it, he’d would’ve got nowhere near no 10.

      But, yes, the deficit is down a bit though we may be borrowing this year up to just over £69 billion. Worse still, the national debt may now be around £4.8 trillion and rising. But, hey, we can still find £5 million a day to Brussels. Not for the NHS, not for Border Force, or the Armed Forces, or to put police back on the street, or for schools, or for anything else truly useful, but for Brussels bureaucrats to play with and to help pay for their armoured luxury vehicles.

      Again, Cameron would never have got into power if we’d seen through his cast iron promises, and glimpsed what was to come.

      Cameron’s tax embarrassments? Relatively trivial except for how evasive he’s been about it all – until he had no choice but to come reluctantly clean (we’ll see). It’s this consistent evasiveness and forked-tongue behaviour – the false promises and hollow assurances – that offend. He has no credibility and so I do not and will not trust him or his EU sales-talk.

  • Frank

    Given the cultural differences, the two are quite alike in their methods, both have a deep contempt for democracy, for informed debate and for respecting opinions that differ from your own.
    As for little Alan Duncan, that paragon of success, it would be very interesting to have a look at his tax affairs!

  • T Gould

    The eurosceptic half are just pushing as hard they can. Obviously mugabe comparisons are exaggeration, but can you blame the out side for speaking up as hard as they can to keep it as even as possible? The governing party is 50/50, but government is mostly In and if things weren’t resisted by the backbenchers Cameron could quite likely push for more. Maybe it looks like fussing about procedural points, but Cameron has the reigns and force of the government behind him, the out backbenchers just have noise-making.

    • OmnipotentWizard

      And my do they make a lot of noise to try to drown out anything that is reported that supports the IN side.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Lowest IQ by country …
    Last and by all means least we have Zimbabwe at 66.
    Compare with Hong Kong on first at 107.
    Looks like it was the Asians that descended from Gods, while Blacks swung down from the trees.
    And they call me a racist.

    • EUSSR 4 All!

      Forget about the Chinese … the people who have the highest IQ are the ones working inside the Moscow Kremlin, the FSB and the GRU!