From Pretoria, a gift horse: Funny Cameron never mentioned it

James Hanning and Francis Elliott reveal the Tory leader's trip to apartheid South Africa in the late 1980s

Sunday 26 April 2009 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


When he had been in Smith Square for several months, an outstanding opportunity presented itself, but one which in later life he may have come to regret. How would Cameron like an all-expenses paid, eight-day trip to South Africa, taking in the sights of Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg? Perhaps with happy memories of his holiday to Kenya in the mid-1980s in mind, the young adviser, rising fast through the ranks at the Conservative Research Department (CRD), said that he would like it very much. But South Africa, unlike Kenya, was still under the control of an apartheid regime, pursuing overtly racist policies in defiance of international opinion.

At the time Cameron was climbing the ladder in Smith Square, Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for more than a quarter of a century, and a worldwide campaign (opposed by Margaret Thatcher) to impose economic sanctions on South Africa had become bitterly controversial.

Nonetheless, the trip had been offered to him by his CRD boss Alistair Cooke and it seemed too good an opportunity to turn down. The fact that Cameron's godfather, Tim Rathbone, was a passionate opponent of the apartheid regime but was himself opposed to sanctions may also have played a role in sweeping away any qualms Cameron might have had. The trip had been offered to the CRD by Derek Laud, who 15 years later was to become known to a wider public as a contestant on Big Brother. But in 1989 he was best known as a fixture on the scene of the Tory far right. That he was both black and gay made him unusual enough, that he was an enthusiastic member of the Monday Club, the anti-immigration group, and liked to ride to hounds ensured that few in Conservative politics were unaware of this flamboyant libertarian.

Laud had started in politics as a research assistant to Michael Brown, at the time the Tory MP for Scunthorpe. Through Brown, Laud had met Cameron's future father-in-law, Sir Reggie Sheffield, a grandee of his local party, with whom he became friends. Other contacts included Michael Colvin and Neil Hamilton, two Tory MPs who, partly through their association with Laud, were later to become embroiled in the cash-for-questions scandal. Laud was working as a lobbyist and was employed by Strategy Network International (SNI), which had been set up in 1985 specifically to lobby against the imposition of sanctions against South Africa. SNI was also a propagandist for Unita, the Angolan opposition group, and for the so-called "transitional government" of Namibia set up in defiance of a UN resolution. Rival lobbyists accused SNI of being controlled by Pretoria. Laud recommended Colvin and Hamilton, who were both recruited as consultants – something they failed to enter properly in the House of Commons register of members' interests, which came back to haunt them when the cash-for-questions scandal broke in 1994.

According to a contemporary report, one of Colvin's jobs was "to identify sympathetic MPs who might be interested in what came to be called the 'Bop run' – trips, generally all expenses paid, for handpicked Tory MPs to the unrecognised Bophuthatswana 'homeland', one of the dumping grounds for the three million black people evicted from their homes in the former South African government's 'whitening the cities' offensive... Appearing before the Select Committee on Members' Interests in 1989, Ian Findlay, who ran Bophuthatswana's London office, was asked: 'Are you satisfied that your government is getting good value for money from visits by British MPs?' He replied: 'Yes, very much so.'

"There is no suggestion the trips were not declared in the register, but allegations of a 'gravy train', paid for by the apartheid regime, abounded. To the annoyance of the homeland authorities, the form would sometimes be a one-day stop in Bophuthatswana before MPs escaped to a beach holiday in Natal or Cape Town. The usual practice was to offer first-class travel, with the alternative of cashing in a single ticket for two club-class seats, enabling MPs to take spouses. A number chose the second option."

Findlay's full evidence to the committee provides an illustration of the sort of largesse pro-apartheid groups were prepared to dish out to sympathetic Tories. Trips, sometimes led by Colvin himself, would typically last 10 days and cost SNI around £2,000 a head in flights, hotels and meals for the fact-finding Tories and their wives, he said. But it wasn't just MPs who attracted the attention of the pro-apartheid lobbyists.

Laud, who also picked likely targets on behalf of SNI's clients (they included big mining concerns, such as Anglo American, and other multinationals, such as Bear Stearns, the US investment bank), was delighted to be able to accommodate one of the Tory Party's bright young things. He invited Cameron to South Africa to "see for himself" what effect sanctions would be likely to have on those who were employed in the mines and elsewhere. That the imports of cheap South African coal had helped the Thatcher administration win the miners' strike would have been an additional attraction for Cameron, who had worked in the CRD's economic section before being promoted.

Alistair Cooke decided that Cameron was a suitable recipient of what he looks back on as "simply a jolly". "It was all terribly relaxed, just a little treat, a perk of the job," says Cooke. "The Botha regime was attempting to make itself look less horrible, but I don't regard it as having been of the faintest political consequence." A senior bureaucrat recalls that the Civil Service advice about such trips was "not to touch them with a barge-pole". It was also felt inadvisable for special advisers, who were unconstrained by the demands of political neutrality, to accept such deals. But David Cameron, neither a civil servant nor a special adviser, evidently saw no reason to look this gifthorse in the mouth, and spent eight days with Derek Laud, visiting mines and factories in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town. Perhaps inevitably, the prospect of Laud and Cameron spending a week together (a third person was supposed to have gone on the trip with them, but dropped out at the last minute) provoked a degree of tittering in Central Office. Someone remarked that if, after a trip down a mine, Laud suggested having a shower, Cameron was not obliged to accept.

Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990 and was later President for five years, honoured all over the world for his championing of reconciliation. David Cameron visited South Africa as Tory leader in August 2006 in order to meet him. Amid great fanfare, he announced a major break with Margaret Thatcher's foreign policy, while keeping noticeably quiet about his own. He advertised himself as being on the side of Mandela and said: "The mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the ANC [African National Congress] and sanctions on South Africa make it all the more important to listen now." Such talk cannot but be seen, at the very least, as an insurance policy against his earlier visit becoming public knowledge.

Cameron was only in his early twenties when he made the trip. He may defend it now as fact-finding, but it was hardly the act of a vigorous and typical anti-apartheid campaigner. Nor does the list of fellow Tories who made the trip sit well with the new-found liberalism of the modern Conservatives. As Lord Hughes of Woodside, then a central player in the anti-apartheid movement, says, "It is almost impossible now to find anyone who wasn't against apartheid; I wish there were as many opposed to it then as say they were now."

Tories in South Africa: Others who went to 'see for themselves'

Neil Hamilton

Another former member of the Monday Club, he became MP for Tatton in 1983. In 1994 he had to resign his post as corporate affairs minister after allegations that he had accepted payments for asking questions in Parliament. Since leaving Parliament in 1997 he has appeared on many occasions in the media, often seeking to clear his name.

John Townend

An MP from 1979 until 2001, he was well known for his controversial views on race and immigration. Shortly before his retirement, referring to people of mixed parentage, he said that Britons were becoming a "mongrel race". He was chairman of the right-wing 92 Group.

Sir George Gardiner

The late MP for Reigate was a vehement Eurosceptic and an executive on the Monday Club, a right-wing Tory pressure group. He once accused John Major of being Ken Clarke's ventriloquist's dummy. In 1997 he stood as a candidate for the Referendum Party.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

Still an MP, he is another former member of the Monday Club and vigorous Eurosceptic. Last year he broke Commons rules by claiming rent on a flat he had bought outright. In 2002 his wife Ann was sacked as shadow rural affairs minister for telling a racist joke.

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