Oliver Wright: Time is running out for the Colonel – and the British PM


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"The thing you have to remember," said the diplomat, "is that every day this goes on, things don't get any better for Gaddafi. He has less money, less weaponry and less support. Ultimately we have time on our side". But, despite a good week for Nato and the rebels, time is increasingly becoming a problem for David Cameron as well.

The Prime Minister badly needs a decisive breakthrough in the conflict before three key events coming up in the next six weeks. The first is the UN General Assembly meeting in New York starting on 13 September, which Mr Cameron is due to address later in the month. Ideally, he would like to declare a version of "mission accomplished". The last thing he needs is a continued stalemate as a backdrop to his speech.

In June, Russia and China signed a joint declaration saying that nations must "not allow the wilful interpretation and expanded application" of UN resolutions. If Gaddafi is not gone by late September they may decide to repeat that call.

The second and related date is expiry of the current Nato mandate for action in Libya, which occurs at the end of September. While there is no question of Nato withdrawing support from the current Libyan mission, it will nonetheless be uncomfortable for the British if there is still no sign of an imminent end. That would bring into sharp focus international concerns about Nato's effectiveness and there could be divisions on the UN Security Council about how long to extend the mandate.

The third date is, domestically at least, the most important. At the start of October Mr Cameron will travel to Manchester for the Conservatives' annual party conference. Again, he will want to declare that British involvement in Libya has been successful. If he cannot, there will be whisperings about the advisability of his taking such a leading role in an intractable conflict.

Yesterday, Mr Cameron met the new Libyan chargé d'affaires, Mahmud Nacua, and spoke to Abdul Jalil, chairman of the Transitional National Council. He said: "I think this is a moment not to be complacent, but optimistic that we are getting closer to the future that many of us talked of. It has taken time, but I think we are heading in the right direction."

It is not the first time in the last six months he expressed similar sentiments. He will be sincerely hoping it will be close to the last.