David Cameron looked comfortable and at ease in the House of Commons chamber on Monday afternoon when updating MPs on what has happened in Libya over the summer.
And well he might: the rebels have overtaken Tripoli, Gaddafi is on the run, and the one major controversy – the discovery of papers suggesting British intelligence colluded with the Gaddafi regime in the rendition of terror suspects – happened under the last government.
But as soon as one set of questions about the conflict ends (even Richard Ottaway, the chair of the foreign affairs select committee, who has always been sceptical of the conflict, gave the prime minister credit for the way it has turned out), another begins: namely what happens to our troops now?
The revelations in the FT and elsewhere that MI6 appeared to have a close working relationship with the Gaddafi secret services is providing something of a dilemma for the current government.
One one hand, this is an open goal for the coalition to plunge the knife into Labour: to accuse them of collusion with the Gaddafi regime in torturing Libyan dissidents. And there are signs that Tory MPs are doing just that.
Patrick Mercer, the former chairman of the House of Commons subcommittee on counter-terrorism, said over the weekend:
This document seems to indicate that our intelligence services were getting unhealthily close to practices that the British government at the time and its successors rightly condemn.
I trust that the Foreign Secretary will look into this, despite the fact that it did not happen on his watch.
Syrians protest in Hama
After the brutal crackdown by Bashar al-Assad’s troops on protesters in Syria over the weekend, William Hague was pleased to find the Russians scrapping their earlier reluctance to criticise the regime and join the growing global condemnation of Mr Assad.
His diplomats in New York will use the opportunity to try and push through once more a resolution that failed in June, condemning the violence. The resolution will be reworded to take into account this weekend’s events.
But given Russia’s complex political make-up, no one in the Foreign Office is taking anything for granted. One official warned: “It is not until we have sat in the meeting that we can get into how member states may be thinking.”
Apparently it’s a sign of strength to change your mind – at least that’s what David Cameron said yesterday about the sentencing U-turn.
So how’s this for a sign of strength? The foreign office this morning declared proudly on its website an additional £2.2m in funding for the World Service, headlining the announcement “Massive U-turn on BBC world funding”. (H/T to Tim Montgomerie at Conservative Home for the pic.)
I am no expert in military logistics, but I was struck by the extraordinary recent deterioration in the performance of the surface route to the Afghan theatre.
Right now, British troops are acutely dependent on our ability to send supplies by sea to Karachi, where they are unloaded and then taken by road through Pakistan. Ahead of this week’s Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office provided me with a briefing based on its detailed report into the Ministry of Defence’s logistics supply chain. This noted that only 15 per cent of consignments shipped by land through Pakistan between 10 December 2009 and 8 December 2010 arrived within the targeted time of 77-87 days, a fair way off the 75 per cent target.
Last night the government lost a crucial amendment to their Europe bill in the Lords by a handful of votes.
Peers voted to introduce a “sunset clause” on the entire bill (actually, the entire bill apart from one technical point), which would limit it to only five years. Importantly, this means that the so-called “referendum lock” – whereby any transfer of sovereignty from London to Brussels could only be allowed after a Yes vote in a referendum – would have to be voted on again in five years’ time.
When the western coalition invaded Iraq the problem was not the initial military campaign; Saddam Hussein was toppled in just days. It was instead the lack of adequate planning for the post-invasion scenario, with insufficient thought given to how the country would be run after the invasion.
Most news channels are focusing this morning on William Hague’s comments (on the Andrew Marr Show) that Gaddafi’s time is running out. (Some defecting officers, never the most reliable of sources, also told a Sunday newspaper that the regime is crumbling).
When Colonel Gaddafi accused the eastern rebels of Al-Qaeda links there was a presumption that this was merely propaganda from the Libyan dictator.
Now, however, a Nato US commander has suggested that intelligence reports indicate a potential “flicker” of al-Qaeda within the resistance. James Stavridis, Nato’s supreme allied commander for Europe, was speaking during Senate testimony today. Here is the relevant transcript:
“We have seen flickers in the intelligence* of potential Al Qaida, Hezbollah. We’ve seen different things. But at this point I don’t have detail sufficient to say that — that there’s a significant Al Qaida presence or any other terrorist presence in and among these folks. We’ll continue to look at that very closely. It’s part of doing due diligence as we move forward on any kind of relationship.”
The Conservative chair, Baroness Warsi, was asked about this on Sky today; her reply wasn’t exactly reassuring. To quote Politicshome.com:
Baroness Warsi responded to reports that there are “flickers” of Al-Qaeda in the Libyan opposition by saying it was “very concerning” but she is confident that the Interim National Council’s “vision of Libya” is not a “post-Gaddafi Libya that includes Al-Qaeda”. “That is the first I’m hearing
So far there has been a solid display of cross-party unity over the military action in Libya, designed to save the lives of rebels in the east of the north African country. The Labour leadership is firmly behind the coalition on its swift action in maintaining a no-fly zone and protecting Libyan citizens.
But this afternoon’s ongoing debate - it began at 3.30pm and will last six hours - has shown that the consensus is not quite as firm as it might appear at first glance. Instead, having talked to MPs in private, and having watched the first few hours of the debate, I would say the overwhelming feeling is one of pride at the initial intervention but unease about how events will now pan out.
Concerns are shared among MPs of all parties, under these categories:
1] End game. There is concern about the lack of an exit strategy for the Libyan intervention. Does it end with an uprising that extinguishes the Gaddafi regime? Could the country be split into west and east? Could the allies pull out before either side wins? Could this be another Vietnam/Iraq? How does the alliance attack Gaddafi’s troops and tanks – from the air – if they enter suburbs and urban areas. As Dennis Skinner said – in a point accepted by the prime minister – with wars it is “easier to get in than get out“. Or as Emily Thornberry asked: “What would be a successful outcome?” For now the answer of David Cameron – and of a supportive Ed Miliband – it is to uphold the UN resolution which allows the protection of Libyan citizens. That may, in reality, only be phase one.
Rory Stewart, the Tory MP, warned that when you dip your toe into such engagements you can soon become up your neck: ”I think the no-fly zone is the correct thing to do but this is a 20-30 year marathon with a very complicated region,” he said.
Hillary Clinton yesterday signalled that a no-fly zone in Libya should be led by the UN rather than by the US. (“I think it’s very important that it is not a US-led effort because this comes from the people of Libya themselves…We think it is important that the United Nations make that decision.”) The secretary of state clearly does not want it to look as if the US is flexing its muscles unilaterally once again.
The British position is slightly more subtle, however. As the Downing St spokesman said this morning at lobby: “Our position is as set out by the foreign secretary statement; it said we needed international support , a clear trigger and an appropriate legal basis.“
David Cameron’s opposition to the release of the Lockerbie bomber is plain. But he has a more nuanced position on Tony Blair’s deal to bring Gaddafi in from the cold.
Cameron is privately rather relieved he was spared having to take the decision. From his public statements, it seems he backs the principle behind the pact. But in hindsight he thinks Blair gave a bit too much away.
A few weeks ago, we asked one senior British government figure whether the uprisings would spread to the Gulf. There are “no problems” yet, he replied.
The language was revealing (when exactly did Britain see democratic change as a problem?) But it is probably to be expected given Britain’s investment in the preserving the regional status-quo.