PMQs: Nick tackles Gordon on Zimbabwe

by Stephen Tall on June 4, 2008

There was a Cinderella at the ball in today’s Prime Minister’s Questions: Labour’s moves to increase to 42 days the length of time terrorism suspects can be detained without trial. Clearly both Nick Clegg and David Cameron decided there was no point going on the attack and risk uniting those Labour backbenchers who might still have the guts to stick up for civil liberties.

Instead, Mr Cameron went six rounds with Gordon Brown over the Government’s so-called ‘green taxes’ on cars. Mr Brown had a strong defence – the Tories’ attempts to suggest they care about the environment up until the point they actually have to do something is sounding increasingly hollow – yet he sounded tired, and almost unsure of himself. The past few weeks has clearly taken its toll on his confidence.

Nick Clegg led on Zimbabwe and demanded the Prime Minister move to strip Robert Mugabe of his knighthood, and take firmer action to make clear the UK’s abhorrence of his regime. Mr Brown’s answers to both were full of good intentions but, to say the least, opaque. All credit to Nick for asking about such an important international issue, and for proposing tough but constructive action the Government could be taking to stand up for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe.

Judge for yourselves how Nick did. You can watch the exchange on YouTube, or read the Hansard transcript, below.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I would like to add my own expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Marine Dale Gostick.
We have all been appalled by the grotesque spectacle of Robert Mugabe lecturing the world on food security just as his Government are blocking the distribution of food aid to his own people. What message does it send that a man who has brought ruin and starvation to his own country continues to be honoured by a knighthood from ours? Will the Prime Minister at least accept that it is difficult to put pressure on other countries to do their bit to bring the Mugabe regime to heel if we do not take this simple, basic step? Will he take immediate action to strip Mugabe of his knighthood?

The Prime Minister:
I am less interested in the symbols than in the substance. We have got to get elections in Zimbabwe that are seen to be free and fair, and we have got to get international observers to be present at those elections so that they are seen by the world as free and fair. Zimbabwe deserves to have a Government who are fully democratically elected and put in place, and that is where I will put my efforts. As for the famine in Zimbabwe, and the loss of lives around the world as a result of famine, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it was important that we were represented at the United Nations conference yesterday.

Mr. Clegg: Of course I agree with the Prime Minister’s tough words, but they need to be translated into action. Will he therefore make it clear that unless minimum standards are met for the conduct of the elections, including the admission of international observers and explicit statements from Zimbabwe’s military leaders that they will recognise the outcome of the poll, the UK will block all foreign currency remittances to Zimbabwe that fund Mugabe’s odious regime, and that he will request our allies in the region, and the world, to do the same?

The Prime Minister: We will of course look at every action that we can take, but the first thing to do is to ensure that these elections are free and fair. We are working with other countries to ensure that there are international observers from other parts of the world, as well as from Africa. There is a need for hundreds of observers because of the geography of the country and the threats of intimidation. I am working with the president of the African Union, the president of the South African Development Community and other leaders around the world to ensure that the offer of international observers is there and is taken up. I hope that the whole House will agree that that is the first priority to ensure that the elections are free and fair.

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As questions go, i though Clegg’s was pretty crap to be honest. Stripping Robert Mugabe of his knighthood is not even much of a symbolic gesture. It means nothing to nobody, and Mugabe won’t bat an eyelid if we take it away. All in all, it made Clegg look rather pathetic.

by Leo Watkins on June 4, 2008 at 9:50 pm. Reply #

Leo, that’s pretty unfair, Nick was good in raising the issue and making the points in his supplementary about the need for tougher action rather than just words. The knighthood is symblolic but if we took it away it would give a tough message be seen as a preparedness to act and get front page coverage odf that around the world – the danger with the present approcah of the government is taht its sen as too low key and behind the scenes.

Symbols mean a lot – I don’t think Gordon Brown understands how much.

I fervently hope as I am sure we all do that the elections are allowed to operate freely and fairly and that there is lasting change in that troubled country.

by Paul L on June 5, 2008 at 1:53 am. Reply #

Paul, I think Leo is just being consistent given his opposition to the tube alcohol ban as gesture politics. The real question is whether this gesture will have a positive benefit on the Zimbabwe situation, and on this I have a feeling that it would be seen as provocational by many of the African countries who really have a much greater ability to help resolve the situation than we do, and so may not be deemed constructive.

As for a block on remitances to Zimbabwe, I thought Michael Howard’s point on Daily Politics was a very good one:- you would have to check carefully that such a move would not remove essential support from those members of the general public (ie outside the Mugabe regime) that rely on cash from overseas freinds and family to survive.

by passing tory on June 5, 2008 at 7:26 am. Reply #

It strikes me that despite all the rhetoric, noone really knows what to do about Mugabe.
Nothing I heard on this video suggests to me that we know what to do.
I am not clear that military action (which no one is currently proposing anyway) from the west could acheive anything, but in any case we are currently overcommitted in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Only the African nations can put pressure on Mugabe, but we have to be careful what we say about them.
This is symptomatic of the decline of western power in the world. This should be the real debate.

by Geoffrey Payne on June 5, 2008 at 9:32 am. Reply #

Am I alone in noting that Brown virtually conceded during PMQs that there is no need to extend detention without charge to 42 days by saying that all applications will be referred to the DPP and a Judge will have to agree to any extensions, and therefore suggested it is possible to continue with the current rolling procedure without necessitating a change in the law?

by Oranjepan on June 5, 2008 at 12:57 pm. Reply #

Leo I agree, although I don’t think Clegg looked pathetic. In this current climate there are far more pressing issues on the electorates mind which would have got more attention. Another chance missed.

by Mund on June 5, 2008 at 12:57 pm. Reply #

Oranjepan: I think you’re wrong. The rolling stops at 28 days. Brown and Smith want 42 days.

On PMQs: Nick Clegg was wrong to go on Mugabe’s knighthood. Brown was right. He may wish we could reclaim the knighthood. Also from Black and Archer Lords-wise.

But trying to protect the elections is more important. And UK slapping Mugabe would hugely help his case for re-election. Big mistake I think. Even as third party NC may find a distressing use of his speech in Mugabe’s cause.

by Chris Paul on June 6, 2008 at 12:29 am. Reply #

Chris Paul, I know what you’re saying and I don’t disagree.

However by conceding the principle of the matter that 28/42 is really an irrelevance once the rolling review is enshrined as a sufficient method of procedural scrutiny, Brown has made the fatal intellectual admission that his proposals are not for practical purpose but are pure power politics – what benefit he can hope to gain from pushing through an unpopular change in the law except to reestablish his dominance over parliament and the country and gain an increase in governmental mandate?

He is playing this one for publicity, but with the mood at large so volatile, having now put the fortune of the Labour party on the table, he risks turning it into a confidence motion – which he would surely lose.

I’m only half surprised that we haven’t made any noise about yet, as it is a tactical trap of his own making which we don’t want to blow, nor do we want to risk our own moral position by delving into petty partisan issues.

by Oranjepan on June 6, 2008 at 1:13 pm. Reply #

Hmm Jacqui Smith as Labour Leader…

by Oranjepan on June 6, 2008 at 1:32 pm. Reply #

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