We should recall Parliament, but Douglas is sitting on his hands

by Tom Watson

There are few issues more important for our Parliament than sending British troops to a hostile country to support an unknown opposition fighting a raggedy civil war against a brutal dictator.

Questioning him on Friday 18 March after the government statement on Libya, David Winnick asked the prime minister:

“despite all that the prime minister has said about reservations – no ground troops and so forth – does he recognise that in the country at large there is bound to be great anxiety that we could be dragged, through escalation, into a third war in nine years? Therefore, will the prime minister make sure that there are daily – or at least very regular reports to the House of Commons, so we avoid a third war”?

David Cameron replied:

“…there should be regular statements updating the House. The point the honourable gentleman makes about no ground troops and no occupying force is vital. That is in the UN security council resolution; it is the reassurance that we can give to people that that is not part of our aims – it is not what the UN wants, it is not what the Arab league wants, it is not what Britain wants. That is clearly a limitation on our ability to act, but it is absolutely right, and I think people will be reassured by it”.

I read in today’s papers that we are sending troops to Libya, or as the government describes them “military liaison advisory teams”.

Yesterday, a number of Conservative MPs called for Parliament to be recalled. The government has not responded. While driving my children to a well known West Midlands theme park, I’m sure I heard Douglas Alexander on the radio agreeing that there was no need bring MPs back to discuss the matter.

I’m getting prematurely long in the tooth but I feel Douglas has made a mistake. He should have pressured a government minister to come to the House. It would have allowed MPs who worry about our Libya campaign to seek assurances that this does not represent mission creep. Personally, I don’t need to ask those questions. I know it is.

A recall would allow me, and others, to test the wisdom of David Cameron. David is very good at saying things. He’s a good wordsmith. He emotes. But he always leaves me with the sense that he’s basically just a bullshitter. It often feels like he is not fully formed in his views. You have to be up close to this set of ministers to get the full picture. Press statements are not enough.

It’s the psychology of our current crop of leaders that gives the game away. Unlike David Cameron, William Hague is a transparent politician. You always know what he is doing and thinking, even when his words suggest something different.

When William Hague said that sending “military liaison advisory teams” does not represent “boots on the ground”, I thought “oh my God, we’re sending in ground troops”.

Maybe Douglas knows a different William Hague and David Cameron. I would imagine he’ll be given special briefings on privy council terms. He probably accepts telephone calls, made by arrangement between their respective private offices for mutually beneficial times in their busy diaries.

Maybe that’s why he said on the radio that on this occasion he was satisfied by the government explanation of the need to send in special military liaison teams. Despite this, he shouldn’t be so quick to sit on his hands when backbenchers express legitimate concerns.

A recall of Parliament is a pain for all concerned. We should have one all the same. We’re sending in troops, for God’s sake. And look where that got us last time.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.


West Bromwich, 18.25

On re-reading this article, I find that, not for the first time, I’ve been too harsh on Douglas Alexander. He’s not making the calls, Hague is. He’s got the difficult task of reacting very quickly to a fast changing policy. So I regret the harsh tone of the piece. Sorry Douglas. To be fair, I should have said how he completely exposed coalition incompetence in the early days of the conflict over the evacuation. But I’m seriously worried about mission creep. And parliament hasn’t been consulted. Ministers should be held to account.

Tags: , , , ,

6 Responses to “We should recall Parliament, but Douglas is sitting on his hands”

  1. Sue Marsh says:

    Thank goodness for the Tom Watsons

    A) For being prepared to use the word “Bullshitter”
    B) For sounding a bit Labour, which is surprisingly rare lately.

  2. doreen ogden says:

    Tom Watson – right again, or would correct be a better turn of phrase.

  3. Henrik says:

    A good piece. Unfortunate, therefore, that Labour will take years to rid itself of the taint of being the party that loves to send troops to war, but refuses to pay for it and then f*cks the guys over afterwards. Remember the military hospitals? Remember the scandalous circumstances in Selly Oak? How shameful is it that a charity like Help For Heroes had to be set up in order to provide the service which the government wouldn’t?

    I have no idea whether it’s true or not, but certainly the reputation of Labour based on the last time in government is a paradoxical one: unpatriotic, anti-military warmongers.

  4. Let’s remember that America never declared war on Vietnam – they sent in “advisors”.

  5. Maxy says:

    .I for one am totally appalled at the woeful contribution that the Labour Party and Douglas Alexander has made to the debate on Libya. By accepting hook line and sinker the Conservative rhetoric about imminent Humanitarian genocide taking place in Libya, those opposed to the intervention have effectively been denied a voice. As for the Arab league calling on the UN to act against Libya, this call to crush Gadaffi has its roots in Gadaffi refusing the toe the Arab line. The very same leaders who were calling for the west to intervene are the very same dictators who have presided over the brutal suppression of their own people. If you are going to talk of human rights, look no further than the brutal suppression of any kind of dissent in Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Similarly the idea that 1973 resolution has the support of the world community is fatuous. Everybody knows that America is pulling the strings with the UK and France in tow. This war was planned well in advance and I do not believe that the no fly zone policy was conceived in just a few days. What is shameful about this whole business is that in implenting a no fly zone with mass bombings of Libya, any chance of a peaceful resolution has been made impossible. Never mind the cancer fallout that Libyans will suffer in the long term as a result of the depleted uranium munitions used by the coalition. What happened to the so called cluster bombs that Gadaffi was supposed to be using? The truth is that this war has been planned months in advance by Messrs Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy. Sadly the Labour Party would have followed the exact same policy if we are to believe Alexander. What happened to ethical foreign policy? Where is true Labour? The trouble is there are no great moral thinkers in the Labour Party. Robin Cook would have been turning in his grave. Parliament should be recalled again.

  6. Maxy says:

    When is the Labour Party going to be at the forefront of political discourse when it comes to foreign affairs. How come for example despite thirteen years in power the Labour Party never managed to support the Palestinian people and has chosen instead to demonise Hamas. How come the Labour Party has developed a blindspot when it comes to Israel?. WHy has the Labour party not come out and supported the declaration to establish statehood by the Palestinians??? The Labour Party seems to be locked in a dinosaur framework when it comes to the Middle East and make the Conservative Party appear progressive. How ironic!!!!!!!

Leave a Reply