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.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.