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Inside the Saif house: Laurie Penny pays a house call

The UK home of Colonel Gaddafi’s son is in the hands of Libyan exiles. This is what it’s like from within.

"My family had to leave Libya just to survive," says a young bearded man in spectacles, perching awkwardly on a white leather sofa. We are in the front room of Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi's mansion in Hampstead Garden Suburb, recently expropriated by activists working in alliance with Libyan exiles. An hour earlier, I had passed through an open window near some ugly imported ferns belonging to Muammar al-Gaddafi's son, having been invited to meet the members of the new Free Libyan Embassy.

We drink stewed tea from Saif's best china and eat cheese sandwiches using his silver cutlery, while the young man, Abdulla, tells me about how his uncle was "disappeared" by Saif's father. "In Libya, people disappear all the time. There was a prison massacre where 1,200 people died. They poured cement over the bodies." Abdulla nervously adjusts his glasses. "It's important that people know we're not creating a civil war for no reason."

Nearly every room in this enormous house boasts a large, flat-screen television. The occupiers have set each one to al-Jazeera, for rolling coverage of the people's revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world. Televised gunfire echoes in the marble hallway as Jay, 25, explains how activists from the London squatter movement took over the Gaddafi mansion, moving in secretly and putting up notices declaring their intention to hold the empty house under English common law. "We wanted to show our solidarity the best way we know how," he says.

Protestors on the roof of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's Hampstead house.

“It's a symbolic and practical reclamation of private property that belongs to the Libyan people. It's about their struggle, which is why the place has been handed over to the Libyans as a place to organise and a safe space for refugees," Jay says. "People have been arriving in support from all over the UK." The tabloids have portrayed the occupiers as drunken anarchists but this is, in Jay's words, "total bollocks". "On the first night, people came down thinking there would be a squat party and we turned them away. They didn't seem to realise how seriously we're taking this," he explains.

“At first, we were elated that we'd managed to pull it off. Then the Libyans turned up and they were elated. But once they started to get reports about family and friends being killed, the atmosphere changed. We were watching Zawiyah burning on al-Jazeera and someone saw his own house. It was terrible."

Jay takes me on a tour over four floors of hushed opulence, each several times the size of an ordinary London flat. "It's worth nearly £11m," he says. Under the kitchen is a cosy entertainment complex, complete with pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and a private cinema done out in suede, the pews so thick and warm you could sleep on them – which people have been doing. On the corner of one aisle a bare duvet lies, neatly folded. Everything here is white, bright and glistening: white leather sofas, marble floors, silver candlesticks adorning pristine white walls. The only note of colour is in one of the guest bedrooms, where a Libyan flag has been draped over the TV.

Fuelling anger

Fearing the spectacle of bailiffs dragging Libyans out of the private property of a Gaddafi, at a time when the UK government is desperately downplaying its erstwhile support for the dictator, the authorities have kept their distance. But that doesn't mean that there have been no attempts to get the occupiers to leave.

“Last night, at about four in the morning, someone came to the door," Jay says. According to Abdulla, "It was a well-dressed Arab person, [wearing] nice clothes and gold. When I asked him what he was doing here so late, he said, 'I want to make you an offer.' He told us: 'I have £40,000 in cash. You can have it if you leave immediately.' No amount of money could make us leave this house. It's not a financial issue."

Libyan exiles inside Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's house.

On the sofa opposite, a quiet man called Ambarak suddenly speaks up in Arabic. "What's a life worth?" he says, as Abdulla translates softly. "What are 100,000 lives worth?" Ambarak perches on the edge of the sofa, looking out of place in his keffiyeh and scuffed trainers. "I'm talking about people being shot by snipers in the street. I'm talking about family members selling dry bread to live.

“They ask what the west should do, but they've known about [Muammar] Gaddafi for years," he continues in broken English. "They did nothing. The petrol . . ." – he rubs his fingers together in a "money" gesture, grinning without humour. "My brother has disappeared in the fighting. We haven't heard from him, we have no way of contacting him." Ambarak goes very quiet. "Excuse me, please. I must go and pray."

"The resources that come out of Libya should belong to the people but that petrol money goes somewhere else," says Abdulla. "All those close to Gaddafi have places like this to live. There are some who are heartless and will do anything for a comfortable life."

Ambarak's family is in Misurata, where fierce fighting continues. "They say on the phone that they can hear shooting and tanks are coming down the street. My cousin has died, [as have] my friend, my neighbours."

An influx of neighbours bearing food terminates the interview. A young man wearing a Libyan flag like a cape takes the cups politely to the sink. He is a long way from home. "We all want to go home," says Abdulla. "But not to Libya as it is now."

The Libyans involved in this article wanted their names to be known; other names have been changed. Anyone wishing to support the Free Libyan Embassy can send a donation to wmclibya.org

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Did John McCain just save Obamacare? What's next for the Affordable Care Act

To gasps in the Senate, McCain announced he was against the "skinny repeal" bill - and cast the deciding vote.

The last time John McCain, the maverick Republican senator from Arizona, had a chance to shift the course of history, it was 2008 and he was running for President against Barack Obama. 

This time, McCain interrupted his treatment for brain cancer to come back to Washington to vote on the Republican attempt to repeal Obama's biggest domestic legacy - the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

President Donald Trump, who ran on a platform of scrapping Obamacare, seemed convinced McCain's vote was in the bag. He also managed to convince wide sections of the left-wing twitterati, who put aside qualms about attacking an ailing octogenarian. 

But it was McCain who had the last word. To gasps in the Senate, McCain announced he was voting against the "skinny repeal" bill - the deciding vote which sank the bill by 51 votes to 49. 

McCain ended the day with a plea for a return to bipartisan politics, from both the Democrats and Republicans. He said: "We must now return to the correct way of legislating and send the bill back to committee, hold hearings, receive input from both sides of aisle, heed the recommendations of nation's governors, and produce a bill that finally delivers affordable health care for the American people. We must do the hard work our citizens expect of us and deserve."

So while McCain may have proved himself his own man, what next for Obamacare? Here's what you need to know:

What were the Republicans trying to do?

The Republicans spent years in opposition vilifying Obamacare, but here's the problem - even for those Republicans who hate every inch of the Affordable Care Act, replacing it is a huge operation. Now they truly do have the power to take healthcare away from poor and sick voters, some are having doubts. 

So the bill to repeal it was "skinny" - it would have repealed the obligation for employers to offer workers healthcare, and the obligation for individuals to take out health insurance, or pay a penalty in higher taxes. It would have also given states more flexibility to create their own healthcare systems. 

The problem is, the Affordable Care Act isn't just about legislation, but about playing the rules of the insurance game. In an insurance market, your insurance can only be cheap if the chance of the insurer paying out is low. In other words, for Obamacare to work smoothly, you need young and health people signed up to it rather than just a self-selected group of the sick. Remove the obligation to take out health insurance, and the second scenario looks much more likely. 

So what will they do next?

After the vote, the stunned Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said: "It's time to move on." However, Trump tweeted the more cryptic: "Let ObamaCare implode, then deal."

For all Trump's bluster, this might be the end of the Republican Party's Grand Plan to Destroy Obamacare. Whether it means Obama's legacy is safe, though, is another matter.

The Affordable Care Act might have become a temple of the left, but there are problems with it. For example, insurers have been dropping out, and middle-income Americans are facing an increase in premiums at an average of 25 per cent in 2017. 

If the Republicans truly want to run Obama's legacy into the ground, they can just sit back and refuse to consider any improvements to the system - a la Trump's strategy.

On the other hand, McCain has called for more bipartisanship. If moderate Republicans and Democrats were willing to listen to him, they might be able to produce a wonkish bill that addresses some of the real concerns of middle America while preserving the principle of affordable care.

But based on the Trump administration's progress so far, this kind of co-operation looks unlikely. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.