David Cameron on his way to announcing new anti-terror measures. Photo: Getty
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David Cameron to chair emergency meeting on UK hostage death threat

After a video apparently showing the beheading of another American journalist has been released, a Cobra meeting will be held to discuss the threat to a UK hostage.

The Prime Minister is to chair an emergency meeting today to discuss how Britain should respond to the threat by Islamic State (also known as Isis) militants to kill a British national they’ve held hostage.

The Cobra committee comes the day after another kidnapped US journalist, Steven Sotloff, appears to have been beheaded by the militants, in a video released online claiming to show the killing.

According to the BBC, Downing Street confirmed on Tuesday this week that it was aware of a UK hostage being held by IS, the name of whom his family have asked not to be released by the media. Yet it is reported that David Cameron has been aware of this hostage situation for a while, so it has been informing his approach to the situation in Iraq.

The footage – released yesterday – shows a clip of the UK hostage at the end of the video, and also again a masked jihadi who appears to have an English accent. It has come out a fortnight after the same militant group put out a video showing the killing of another US journalist, James Foley, which also showed a militant with an apparently English accent, dubbed Jihadi John by the British media.

According to the BBC’s Today programme this morning, government sources are asserting that there will be no “knee-jerk response” to this news by the cabinet, and the Prime Minister instead will set out “a considered approach”.

However, although insiders are playing down the possibility of a retaliatory strike against IS, the pressure has been mounting on the PM as the situation in the Middle East intensifies. On the day of the return of MPs to parliament on Monday following summer recess, he gave a speech to the Commons explaining how the government is attempting to widen and strengthen anti-terror laws in light of the threat of British nationals going out to fight with jihadists and returning to the UK.

In his statement, he suggested that if Britain were to intervene in the area, in an emergency situation, then there could be the scenario of acting first, and telling parliament afterwards – rather than securing a vote from the Commons first, before the country takes on an offensive role. This, along with his assertion that he has not ruled out military action against IS, suggests that intervention beyond a humanitarian and surveillance role may be on the cards. It may be Cameron’s only choice if the British government is unable to avoid the death of a British hostage.

The former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was in the role ten years ago when the government took Britain into the invasion of Iraq, told Today this morning that military intervention may be necessary. He said that "increased pressure for military involvement" among some MPs in parliament is "not unreasonable". And after asserting his support for arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who are fighting IS, saying, "we ought to have a more active policy of support", he added that there was a case for British involvement in military action against IS forces, at least in Iraq. He said, if the US asked the UK to join in air strikes in the area, "my instinct would be probably to do so. No one's aware more than I am of the legacy of the 2003 Iraq war. Of course we should learn from the past, but we shouldn’t be paralysed by the past at the same time…"

Straw also spoke about how to deal with the situation of British hostages being held, having been involved in the Ken Bigley case a decade ago. He said there would be the need to react "secretly, privately", to some extent, and also stated, "you need communication with the hostage-takers, but not negotiation... Not entertaining the payment of ransoms to hostage-takers, but at the same time you need some communication with the hostage takers..." He acknowledged the heightened sensitivity brought about by mass-communication today: "there was a lot of pressure ten years ago, but there wasn’t social media available in the levels that it is now."

With heavyweight figures on both sides, including Nick Clegg and the PM himself, not being averse to military intervention, it may only be a matter of time.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.