Sir Richard Branson last night denied a report in a leaked US embassy cable that he bankrolled a diplomatic effort to sweeten the exit of the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe.
A confidential memo released by WikiLeaks claims that, in July 2007, Branson was due to hold a secret meeting with South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela and other senior African statesmen to discuss persuading President Mugabe, now 87, to step down.
The initiative is said in the cable to have been brokered by the Zimbabwean politician Jonathan Moyo, but never came to fruition. Last night Sir Richard's office acknowledged that he had been approached by Mr Moyo to discuss "ways to broker a peaceful reconciliation in Zimbabwe" but no further action was taken.
The cable, dated 10 July 2007 and classified by the then US ambassador to South Africa, Eric Bost, states: "UK businessman Richard Branson is bankrolling an African 'Elders' initiative to convince Zimbabwean President Mugabe to step down. The 'Elders' plan to meet secretly in Johannesburg July 17-18 with Branson to discuss their initiative."
The cable says the planned July 2007 meeting was to include Mr Mandela, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the former presidents of six African states. Former US President Jimmy Carter was also mooted as a participant.
The memo identifies Mr Moyo, a controversial figure in Zimbabwean politics, as "working with Branson on the plan". The cable goes into detail about Mr Moyo's proposal that the Elders visit Mr Mugabe and urge him to support a new constitution, giving him the chance to select an executive prime minister in exchange for standing down. Mr Moyo is quoted as suggesting "a script" for the Elders' encounter with the Zimbabwean president, including stressing that "they respect him" and want to protect his "proud legacy".