Confusion remains as Nato takes charge in Libya

Nato takes command of the no-fly zone but the US will remain in charge of air strikes.

Confusion and uncertainty continue to plague the mission in Libya. Nato has agreed to take command of the no-fly zone, but in order to placate Turkey, the US will remain in charge of air stikes on Colonel Gaddafi's ground forces. Ankara is understandably reluctant to play any part in a bombing campaign that could lead to heavy civilian casualties in a Muslim-majority country.

For now, the allies are urging greater patience. They argue, reasonably enough, that the mission has already succeeded on its own terms by preventing a slaughter of civilians in Benghazi. But it remains entirely unclear what will happen if the operation results not, as hoped, in the fall of Gaddafi, but in a military stalemate.

As Max Hastings writes in today's Financial Times, the armed forces fear that the coalition has failed to meet the key test before launching any intervention: "defining clear and attainable objectives". There is no appetite to deploy ground troops or to police an indefinite no-fly zone, akin to the one that held in Iraq for 12 years. With this in mind, American officials are still reportedly exploring the possibility of a negotiated settlement between Gaddafi and the rebels.

Elsewhere, in today's Daily Telegraph, Malcolm Rifkind, who remains one of the most influential voices on foreign affairs in the Commons, argues that the coalition must arm the rebels. He writes:

[T]here is a third arm of the strategy, without which the others will have only modest impact: the overt or covert supply of military equipment to the insurgents. Even without aircraft, Gaddafi has a massive advantage over the opposition with his tanks and heavy artillery. It is difficult to see how he can be overthrown in the short to medium term unless there is a massive popular rising in Tripoli or a mass defection of his army to the insurgents. Neither is impossible, but nor can either be assumed given the fear that Gaddafi still inspires.

But many fear this could trigger a protracted civil war. What we can say with certainty is that few believe the coalition's ad-hoc approach is sustainable.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.