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.