Military action begins in Libya as the allies open fire

French fighter jets reported to have destroyed four Libyan tanks.

Military action has begun in Libya, with France leading the way. A French plane is reported to have fired on a Libyan military vehicle in the first air strike of the campaign. As many as 20 of the country's fighter jets are patrolling the skies over Benghazi in an attempt to enforce the no-fly zone.

In a typically assured statement outside the emergency conference in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy has declared that "France has decided to take up its role in front of history". David Cameron has conceded that there will be "unforeseeable consequences" of taking action, but has insisted, Blair-like, that it is better to intervene than to "risk the consequences of inaction".

He said: "Colonel Gaddafi has made this happen. He has lied to the international community, he has promised a ceasefire, he has broken that ceasefire. He continues to brutalise his own people and so the time for action has come. It needs to be urgent. We have to enforce the will of the United Nations and we cannot allow the slaughter of civilians to continue.

"What is absolutely clear is that Gaddafi has broken his word, he has broken confidence and continues to slaughter his own civilians. This has to stop. We have to make him stop and make him face the consequences. I think action must take place urgently."

For now, the declared aim remains to protect the people of Libya; both Cameron and Sarkozy have been careful not to give voice to the ultimate objective of regime change. It remains unclear how the allies will respond if Gaddafi refuses to give way. Meanwhile, there are reports that the rebels have admitted that they shot down their own plane this morning.

UPDATE: French fighter jets have destroyed four Libyan tanks in air strikes to the south-west of Benghazi, according to al-Jazeera.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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