Cameron tells MPs: British hostages remain unaccounted for in Algeria

PM says number of Britons at risk at Algerian gas plant has been "significantly reduced" but that operations are not over.

David Cameron has just finished delivering his Commons statement on the hostage crisis in Algeria. He told MPs that last night the number of British citizens at risk was "less than 30", adding that this number had been "significantly reduced" since but that he was unable to say more at this stage. In other words, there are Britons who remain unaccounted for.

With a hint of frustration in his voice, Cameron also revealed that he only learned of the operation by Algerian forces on Thursday morning "while it was taking place".

He said:

Mr Speaker, we were not informed of this in advance.

I was told by the Algerian Prime Minister while it was taking place.

He said that the terrorists had tried to flee, that they judged there to be an immediate threat to the lives of the hostages and had felt obliged to respond.

When I spoke again to the Algerian Prime Minister  later last night he told me that this first operation was complete but this is a large and complex site and they are still pursuing terrorists and possibly some of the hostages in other areas of the site.

But while clearly disappointed by the conduct of the Algerian government, Cameron also emphasised several times that the responsibility for the hostage-taking laid with the terrorists alone, who are believed to be operating under veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, described by Cameron as "a criminal terrorist and smuggler who has been operating in Mali and in the region for a number of years, and who was formerly affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Maghreb."

Cameron also reflected on the "heavy price" paid by Algeria over many years "fighting against a savage terrorist campaign".

David Cameron leaves Number 10 Downing Street to travel to the House of Commons to deliver a statement on the unfolding hostage situation in Algeria. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour loses Copeland to the Tories but clings onto Stoke-on-Trent Central

It is the first time a party in opposition has lost a by-election to a governing party since 1982.

Labour have lost the seat of Copeland, which they have held since 1935, to the Conservatives. 

Meanwhile, the party only narrowly saw off a threat from the right-wing populist Ukip leader Paul Nuttall in Stoke-on-Trent Central.

Jeremy Corbyn, who is to set out the party's path to Brexit today, tweeted: "Labour's victory in Stoke is a decisive rejection of Ukip's politics of division. But our message was not enough to win through in Copeland."

The Labour leader's unpopularity with the country at large is likely to loom large in the by-election post-mortem. In Copeland, an area heavily reliant on the nuclear industry, the Tories made much of Corbyn's unwillingness to counter further expansion.

In Copeland, the Tory candidate, Sellafield worker Trudy Harrison won with 13,748 votes, beating Labour's Gill Troughton by 2,147 votes. The Conservatives won with an increase of 8.5 points, taking 44.3 per cent of the vote.

The election was characterised as one of "nuclear vs the NHS", with locals also worried about a relocation of hospital services which could leave them travelling 40 miles for treatment. Despite a candidate who was a former doctor, and the NHS being Labour's bread and butter, the party failed to keep the seat.

In Stoke-on-Trent Central, by contrast, party activists will be relieved to see off Nuttall, who has tried to rebrand Ukip as the party of the working class. Nuttall is reportedly determined to carry on as party leader, but as my colleague Anoosh writes, the party will now have to mull over a fundamental question: if Ukip can't win in Stoke, where can it win? 

However, given Nuttall's reputational meltdown over a false claim to have lost close friends at Hillsborough, Labour's Gareth Snell only narrowly beat him.

Snell received 7,854 votes, compared to Nuttall's 5,233, a majority of 2,621. Labour squeaked to victory despite a 2.2 point reduction in its previous vote share.

In his victory speech, Snell said his constituency would not be divided by race or faith: "So for those who have come to Stoke-on-Trent to sow hatred and division, and to try to turn us away from our friends and neighbours, I have one message – you have failed."

Both Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent voted Leave in the EU referendum. However, the Liberal Democrats, which has styled itself the voice of Remainers since the EU referendum, enjoyed a surge in the by-elections.

In Stoke-on-Trent Central, the Lib Dems increased their vote share by 5.7 points, while in Copeland they did so by 3.8 points.

Lib Dem president Sal Brinton said of Stoke: “We would have done even better but for many voters, drawn to the Lib Dems, who felt they just couldn’t risk being represented by a Ukip MP, so reluctantly backed Labour."

Corbyn allies among the Labour MPs have tried to play down the loss of Copeland, with Richard Burgon describing it as a "marginal" (albeit one held by Labour for more than 80 years), and Paul Flynn taking a swipe at former Copeland MP Jamie Reed, tweeting: "Copeland MP is pro-nuclear right winger. No change there."

 

 

 

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