David Cameron attempted to get his trouble-hit strategy on Libya back on track yesterday by announcing that the UK would airlift 6,000 mainly Egyptian refugees stranded on the Libya-Tunisia border to Cairo.
The Prime Minister was keen to demonstrate international leadership and effective action – and not before time. Last week the Government was accused of bungling efforts to evacuate Britons from Libya. This week, Mr Cameron has appeared to send contradictory signals about whether a no-fly zone should be created over the country to prevent Colonel Muammar Gaddafi launching attacks on his own people.
Mr Cameron's surprise proposal appeared to be shot down before take-off as the US, Russia and China cast doubts over whether agreement could be reached on a no-fly zone. It also raised eyebrows at the Foreign Office where some officials grumbled they had not been consulted and warned that such an intervention by Western powers would anger many in the Arab world.
At Westminster, MPs suspect that Mr Cameron was sabre-rattling in his Commons statement on Monday to divert attention from the accident-prone evacuation of British citizens, only to row back on Tuesday in the face of lurid newspaper headlines about military action.
"He seems to be making policy on the hoof," one senior Conservative MP said yesterday. "He has to learn that you need to prepare the ground and line up allies before launching such an idea."
Bernard Jenkin, a Tory MP who takes a close interest in defence, said Mr Cameron was showing international leadership but that the rug had been pulled from under his feet by the cool response from other nations. He argued that the Prime Minister should have given a private rather than public "prod" to an Obama administration reluctant to follow the previous Bush regime's interventionist approach in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr Cameron has always been sceptical about Tony Blair's doctrine of "liberal interventionism". But in his first major foreign affairs test as Prime Minister, he appeared to be following the Blair mantra, sparking media speculation about his own "first war". The way he grabbed headlines on Monday reminded many MPs of Mr Blair's approach.
Mr Cameron is unrepentant. At Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, he cited the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remark that the US was "actively considering" a no-fly zone. Cameron allies blame excitable newspapers for ramping up what they felt was just "sensible contingency planning". They insist that with events in Libya impossible to predict, the Government must prepare for various scenarios to avoid being caught cold. These could include Colonel Gaddafi using planes to crush the rebellion or even using his stocks of mustard gas – said to be held at a secure remote location – against his own people.
Downing Street insists that the Prime Minister's more urgent priorities are ensuring a safe exit for Britons in Libya, ratcheting up the pressure on Colonel Gaddafi by isolating him internationally and humanitarian measures he announced yesterday. Two commercially chartered passenger airliners departed from East Midlands and Stansted airports for the Tunisian town of Djerba, where they were due to be joined by a third plane from Italy.
Cameron aides insist the Foreign Office was "in the loop" about the no-fly zone because the proposal was discussed by the Government's National Security Council, of which the Foreign Secretary William Hague is a member.
Officials say Britain drafted the UN Security Council's resolution on the Libya crisis and have not given up hope of securing another approving a no-fly zone if conditions deteriorate in Libya.
The UK was also instrumental in calling an emergency summit of EU leaders a week tomorrow to discuss Libya and is trying to broker an agreement on joint action ahead of the Brussels meeting. Mr Hague will be in Paris today after Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, held preliminary talks there yesterday.
Mr Cameron is on a fast learning curve as momentous events in the Arab world unfold. So are the Foreign Office's best brains, who didn't see them coming.
The Prime Minister said yesterday: "What has been striking is that although many said that any sort of rebellion like this would be extremist, or Islamist, or tribal, it is none of those things; it is a revolt by the people, who want to have greater democracy in their country."Reuse content