Monday 28 February 2011

Cam's Libya no-fly zone stalled on take-off

It used to be dictators that started foreign wars to distract from their domestic difficulties. But what we just saw in the Commons was sabre-rattling of a high order by David Cameron.

Making an urgent statement to the Commons on the situation in Libya the Prime Minister punted the notion of enforcing a military no-fly zone over the country to prevent Gaddafi firing on his own citizens in the liberated towns and cities along the Mediterranean coast.

Instead of an examination of the British failures of the last week, turned around only by the intervention of the Special Forces to evacuate oil workers, Cameron threw the focus onto flash-bang military solutions.

Right now this looks like chaff to cover for the mistakes of the evacuation. There is precious little detail on what this no-fly zone would cover, what international agreements are needed to establish it and exactly what role Britain would have in enforcing it, given that we have few fighter jets to fly and no aircraft carrier to fly them off. There is Cyprus, I suppose, but that is almost at the other end of the Mediterranean, and can't be towed any closer.

Initiating military action would be a first for this Prime Minister - remember he inherited the other conflicts we are involved in - and there was no clear statement of why it would be striclty in Britain's strategic interest to take sides in a potential civil war in Libya.

There is a case for doing it, it's called the doctrine of liberal intervention, and he may be inheriting that policy from Tony Blair too. The no-fly zone idea was proposed by the French last week, and taken up by David Owen here in the UK. He was probably accused of grandstanding on the issue.

Sunday 27 February 2011

Holyrood polls back on trend for Labour win

YouGov in the Sunday Herald gives Scottish Labour a commanding lead over the SNP, suggesting that the last poll that put the nationalists on course for a second term at Holyrood was a rogue result.

The poll, actually carried out for the Green Party (long gone are the days when the Herald carried out a monthly opinion poll), gave figures that are crunched to give Labour 59 out of 129 seats at Holyrood, up 13 on 2007. The SNP would get 35 (down 12), the Tories 19 (up two), the LibDems nine (down seven), the Greens six (up four), with one Independent MSP.

The SNP insist the election is wide open - too true - and this poll will make Salmond at lot less uncomfortable than Tavish Scott will be feeling.

Personally, I maintain the Lib Dem vote is already down to its core vote in the Scottish elections and that personal support and resilience will see the sitting MSPs through. But this poll looks disastrous for the Lib Dems.

Good news for the Greens, who paid for the survey, raising the possibility of them being in power with Labour, if the parliamentary arithmetic works that way.

The figures, among those certain to vote, are:

Labour 41% on the constituency vote, up 8.8% on the 2007 election.

The SNP on 32%, down 0.9%, the Conservatives 15% (down 1.6), the LibDems 8% (down 8.2%) and 4% plan to vote for other parties (up 1.9%).

In the regional votes, Labour significantly ahead, on 40% (up 10.8 points on 2007), compared to the SNP on 26% (down 5).

The Tories on 15% (up 1.1), the LibDems 7% (down 3.3), the Greens 6% (up 2), and all others 5% (down 5.6).

These figures are more on trend than the last Times poll that gave the SNP a lead. It's a long road to Holyrood though.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Flannelling on evacuation while Tripoli burns

How embarrassing is this evacuation of British nationals from Libya becoming?

The situation in Tripoli, and in the desert camps where a number of British oil workers are stranded, sounds grave but the Foreign Office is getting hammered for its slow response to the crisis.

The government has been left struggling to provide a proper response to the Libyian crisis after the only plane it had so far chartered to fly into Tripoli was left on the runway at Gatwick airport last night because of a “technical fault”.

At least 300 Britons are in the Tripoli area, struggling to leave the country after scheduled flights were cancelled by commercial operators. Now it sounds like we're sending a holiday firm charter to rescue them. The aircraft, we're told, will leave "soon".

Britain was among the last of the European countries to scramble aircraft to Tripoli to rescue its trapped citizens.

French, German and Portuguese governments simply sent their aircraft into Libya while the British government held back a departure from Gatwick until landing permission was granted at Tripoli airport.

Even the Irish Air Corps is ahead of the British Foreign Office in attempting to get its people home from Libya, as protests against Muammar Gaddafi intensify.

Nine Air Corps personnel left Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel on Tuesday night in two aircraft to attempt to fly around 40 Irish citizens home from Libya.

A Learjet 45 and a Casa patrol plane have been on stand by in Malta since Tuesday to repatriate the group of Irish citizens

Royal Navy frigate HMS Cumberland was due to arrive off Libyan waters on Wednesday night, but there were no plans to get people offshore or for the vessel to dock in port.

Three British flights are due to be sent to Libya, with enough capacity to get all stranded Britons, but Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander said that this has not been the Foreign Office’s finest hour.

He said :”William Hague should explain why the government appears to have been slow off the mark when other countries have already repatriated a large number of their citizens.”

Hague said that he would not rule out sending military flights to rescue British oil workers in desert camps in Libya. There are reports that military assets are being lined up in Malta for an operation to get British people out, if necessary.

With Hague is left flannelling to make contingencies on the home front Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, who is meant to be minding the shop while Cameron is abroad, was off with his family on a half-term holiday.

Hague is due to fly to the US on Thursday, when the Prime Minister is due back from the Middle East.

Cameron, who sounded weak on sanctions yesterday while France sounded strong, has had to defend himself from criticism of trailing around the Gulf with a delegation of arms trade representatives in tow.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Coastguard has to "prove" closures case - PM

That looked like an easy hit for Ed Miliband on the Forestry sell-off at Prime Minister's Questions, getting Cameron to signal a retreat on the policy with a one word answer.

But Cameron is deft on his feet, and his frank admission that he was unhappy with the way the consultation on the future of the Forestry Commission was proceeding knocked the balance of the exchange in his favour.

But the result is good one for the opposition - bye bye forestry sale, and bye bye Caroline Spelman possibly.

In England the Forestry Commission sell-off has ignited the kind of anger coastal communities are feeling over the proposed Coastguard station closures.

In all of Britain's remote coastal constituencies - Holyhead, Angelsea, Bangor, Storoway, Shetland - people are up in arms about plan to drastically reduce the number of stations from 18 to eight. Only three – in Aberdeen, Southampton/Portsmouth and Dover – will be open 24 hours a day. Stornoway and Shetland are expected to fight it out to decide which should be open in daylight hours only.

Ministers are beginning to get the message from all across Britain that the proposals are a step too far.

I think I detected the beginnings of another U-turn when Cameron answered a question from a Northern Ireland MP, the DUP's Jim Shannon I think, on the coastguards later in Prime Minister's Questions.

"I'm very aware of this issue," said the Prime Minister. "The point is that the coastguard has got to prove in this consultation that what it wants to do is to co-ordinate the number of offices that are receiving calls in order to put more money and resources into the frontline services, the number of boats and rescuers and helpers there are. That is the aim of the policy but I fully accept they have to prove that to people in order to go ahead with the proposals they are making."

After the Forestry turn around that sounded like a very long way of the Prime Minister saying he wants some distance between himself and the consultation over the station closures currently underway. It's a big signal that the case for retaining a lot more of the stations could be won.

Game on in the race for Holyrood

It looks like game on for the Scottish parliament elections, with a neck and neck poll in today's Times newspaper.

The poll is a massive turnaround for the SNP after languishing behind Labour over the winter.

Unfortunately the poll isn't in the London edition of the paper, and as it's behind a paywall online, I'll post the results below.

In the constituency section, the the SNP on 37 per cent, up six points since November.

Labour on 36 per cent, down five points, with the Tories and the Lib Dems both unchanged on 13 per cent.

In the regional list vote the SNP are up to 35 per cent, that's plus three, and Labour is on 33 per cent, down three.The Tories are up one point on 13 per cent and the Lib Dems are up one to 10 per cent.

How would the parliament look on May 6th? On these figures the calculation is that Alex Salmond would lead the largest party with 51 seats, four more than his minority government has now.

Labour would gain two seats and be on 48 MSPs. The Tories would be down three to 14 MSPs and the Lib Dems would be reduced to a rump of 12 seats, four less than they hold now.

The Greens may end up with four seats and make crucial coalition partners for either the SNP or Labour. (Remember to take into account the George Galloway and Margo MacDonald personal vote which may take the edge of main party showings).

This could lead to interesting coalition negotiations, or as happened the last time, a minority SNP government.

There are nearly 80 days to go to the election, so a lot can happen but this is the second boost the SNP has had this week - with bus tycoon Brian Souter promising £500,000 towards the party's campaign.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Tuesday 8 February 2011

The Hoff meets The Toff in Palace Yard

Politics has gone celebtastic today. Hot on the heels of Meryl Streep as Thatcher, Baywatch star David Hasselhoff dropped in to Westminster and bumped into you know who.

It was Hoff meets Toff as David Hasselhoff teamed up with David Cameron for this picture snapped by Paul Waugh of

The two “Daves” bumped into each other as the Baywatch star was being given a guided tour of Parliament by Tory MP David Morris.

The Morecambe MP has recruited The Hoff as part of his campaign to restore the seaside town's Winter Gardens and Hasselhoff even turned up in the Commons with his trademark red rescue float in a plastic bag.

Cam was taken aback to see the former Knightrider star in New Palace Yard. He was overheard saying: “David what are you here for?” The Hoff answered: “I came to see you buddy!”.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher

Mama Mia - the first images of Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher for the forthcoming biopic, "The Iron Lady".Frighteningly good, isn't she?

Streep attended Prime Minister's Questions a few weeks ago to get the atmosphere of the dispatch box.

Monday 7 February 2011

Lockerbie - predictions of Megrahi's demise

In the Lockerbie releases, this from the Foreign Office in Novemember 2008.

Megrahi has outlived all predictions of his demise which, in this instance, was measuresd at two years, not three months.

Here's the par on page 67 of the report:

11. Megrahi has made an application for bail to the Scottish High Court on the grounds of (a) the slow pace of the appeal and (b) his failing health. This application will be heard on 6 November. If successful, Megrahi will be released on bail to an address in Glasgow owned by his wife. Strathclyde Police are currently carrying out a security assessment which will form part of the court's decision. The key aspect will however be Megrahi's actual prognosis, which we understand to be a 50% chance of surviving a further 18-24 months. HMG has no locus in the bail application, although we understand that it will be contested by the Crown. Our cross-Whitehall press lines reflect the fact that it is a matter for the court (Annex D).

Lockerbie- what Brown said, and didn't say

Other people, like my good friend Paul Waugh, have commented that any British Prime Minister would have come to the same conclusion as HMG that it was in Britain's interests to have the Lockerbie bomber released before he died in gaol.

Not to pre-empt Cameron's statement - he has previously said he would have let the man rot in prison - there is one respect in which he would have handled this differently from Gordon Brown.

Remember at the time of Megrahi's release, with all the ensuing saltire-waving in Tripoli, there was not a squeak out of Prime Minister Brown.

It was a moment when he could have said he had personally written to Gaddafi warning him not to celebrate the release, but instead there were days and days of radio silence from the PM.

Two weeks later Brown said that his silence had been prompted by his determination to focus solely on persuading the Libyan regime not to make Megrahi's release a subject of celebration once he returned to Tripoli.

He said: "There was no conspiracy, no cover-up, no double-dealing, no deal on oil, no attempt to instruct Scottish ministers, no private assurances by me to Colonel Gaddafi."

He said the Lockerbie bombing was a "terrorist act of the gravest brutality", but added that Libya had moved from being a sponsor of international terrorism to being an ally in the fight against nuclear proliferation.

"It is in all our interests and Britain's national interest that Libya rejoins the international community. So it was the duty of those responsible to look at all possible outcomes of the Megrahi case and their effect on our relations with Libya and on international terrorism and nuclear proliferation."

Digested Lockerbie - the concluding paragraphs

here is Sir Gus O' Donnell's conclusion. In short, with Megrahi terminally ill the UK government (put Blair or Brown or Cameron or anyone in the chair) decided they had to spring him out of Greenock.

They arrived at this conclusion with the Libyian government promising mayhem if the prisoner died in Scotland, with MI6 telling them that, with former MI6 people who work with BP telling them that, and with all their instincts telling them that.

But the ball is not in their court, thanks to devolution and a separate Scottish legal system and the result of the 2007 Scottish election. A hostile SNP administration has to make the decision and the UK gov knows that applying pressure could result in disaster for UK strategic interests.

Here's the conclusion:

34. iv

"It is my conclusion that..once Mr Megrahi had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in September 2008, HMG policy was based upon an assessment that UK interests would be damaged if Mr Megrahi were to die in a UK jail.

The development of this view was prompted, following Mr Megrahi‟s diagnosis of terminal illness, by the extremely high priority attached to Mr Megrahi‟s return by the Libyans who had made clear that they would regard his death in Scottish custody as a death sentence and by actual and implicit threats made of severe ramifications for UK interests if Mr Megrahi were to die in prison in Scotland.

The policy was primarily motivated by a desire to build on previous success in normalising relations with Libya and to safeguard the substantial gains made in recent years, and specifically to avoid harm to UK nationals, to British commercial interests and to cooperation on security issues. The desire to see such a result developed and intensified over time as Mr Megrahi‟s health declined and the imminence of his death appeared greater;

34. v. Policy was therefore progressively developed that HMG should do all it could, whilst respecting devolved competences, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Mr Megrahi‟s transfer under the PTA or release on compassionate grounds as the best outcome for managing the risks faced by the UK. This action amounted to: proceeding with ratification of the PTA; explaining to Libya in factual terms the process for application for transfer under a PTA or for compassionate release; and informing the Scottish Government that there was no legal barrier to transfer under the PTA;

34. vi. .....the former Government took great effort not to communicate to the Scottish Government its underlying desire to see Mr Megrahi released before he died. Moreover, it is clear that HMG considered that any attempts to pressurise or lobby the Scottish Government could be counter productive to achieving this outcome. Although it is likely that the Scottish Government was aware of this desire, there is no record that it was communicated or that UK interests played a part in Mr Megrahi‟s release by the Scottish Government on compassionate grounds."

Lockerbie - an "understanding" on PTA

This bit, par 14, of Sir Gus O'Donnell's report is intriguing. He states, in the usual, restrained civil service tone, that the UK government had an "understanding" that the Scottish Executive would accept the Prisoner Transfer Agreement could cover Megrahi if there was movement on airgun legislation and damages on slopping out for prisoners.

Here's the paragraph:

"14. Subsequently it is clear that HMG‟s understanding was that a PTA without any exclusions might be acceptable to the Scottish Government if progress could be made with regards to ongoing discussions relating to liabilities for damages under the Scotland Act for breaches of Human Rights (the „Somerville‟ judgment), and devolution of firearms legislation."

Kenny MacAskill's comments from yesterday make it clear that it is wrong to suggest that he sought a deal on this, or anything else. There was not an understanding but a "mis-understanding".

There is nothing in the papers to show that the Scottish government ever suggested a deal could be made over Prisoner Transfer agreement. Of course, that kind of put your pencils down moment is just not the sort of conversation that would be minuted

But why would the UK government think differently, what made UK Ministers think that the Scottish government was suggestible on this?

Lockerbie papers - the O'Donnell verdict

Scanning the Cabinet Office release of papers on Lockerbie, this seems to be the killer paragraph from cabinet secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell

"24. From the point at which HMG became aware that Mr Megrahi had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, HMG judged that UK interests would be damaged if Mr Megrahi were to die in a UK jail. Policy was therefore progressively developed that HMG should do all it could, whilst respecting devolved competences, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Mr Megrahi’ s transfer under the PTA or release on compassionate grounds. Such an approach was understood across all relevant Government Departments."

Lockerbie papers release

The Cabinet Office release of the Lockerbie papers is available here: Click or press and crowd source:

Cameron already the winner in Lockerbie paper trail

Labour government "did all it could" to secure the release of Abdul Basset al Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, according to the first leak of documents on the case.

The Daily Telegraph in Scotland seems to have had an early peek at the Lockerbie papers which are due out at 1pm today.

Here's the link to what will be a developing story during the day.

Also to whet the appetite here's the Vanity Fair piece on the Lockerbie deal which claimed that the Scottish government was willing to release Megrahi in exchange for a deal on the Scotland Act that would close down compensation claims from prisoners over slopping out.

That was met with a 24 carat quote from Kevin Pringle, the First Minister's spokesman: who describes the claim as “complete and utter garbage without a shred or scintilla of truth.”

Claim and counter-claim is what this story will be about all day long - Just Joan McAlpine and Guido Fawkes have been going hammer and tongs on the issue via Twitter all morning for no clearly discernable purpose (other than the attention, I guess).

By the time the dust and papers have settled this evening I reckon only Cameron will be the only winner.

The Prime Minister is on his feet at 3.30pm in the Commons, reporting on the European security Summit in Munich, but he will take the opportunity to condemn the release of the all over again.

He won't have to do much to sully Labour, he is ably assisted by the media narrative, and the SNP will defiantly insist that the decision was taken on compassionate and distinctly Scottish legal grounds (just as Jack Straw wanted them to).

At the time Cameron disagreed profoundly with the decision to release Megrahi. He said: "this man was convicted of murdering 270 people and he showed no compassion to them."

That's the kind of line, in the setting of the Commons chamber, that will make it to the US news networks tonight.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Cairo turning nasty - "despicable scenes" says Cam

Ach, there's Cameron with Ban Ki Moon in Downing St, speaking on the Egypt crisis. Better move to that.

Cameron says the "despicable scenes" we are seeing on television should not be repeated.

Things seem to have really kicked-off in Cairo this afternoon - that looks like a proper riot about to begin just as darkness is falling.

I spoke to the Sunday Herald's David Pratt last night who was in Amsterdam on the way to Egypt. His timing's about right, as Scotland's de facto Foreign Correspondent he has a knack of turning up at events just when they're about to get very hot. Stay safe David.

Coastguard worries get Westminster debate

I've been moving around a lot in the last week and neglecting the blogsite. Apologies.

After filing the Record front page story on the downed Tornado in the Minch last Thursday I found myself the very next day in Stornoway where concern about the loss of the coastguard station is running high.

The Tornado downing was just too symbolic an event to miss. A jet from a base threatened with closure; the ejected crew picked up by a copter being bundled into a PFI package; the rescue co-ordinated from RAF Kinloss which will close; handled by Stornoway coastguard station which is under threat of closure; assisted by a coastguard tug that is being withdrawn from service. Welcome to the world of coalition cuts.

The coastguard closures are being debated by MPs in Westminster Hall right now, the first time they've had an opportunity to address the subject, although Angus MacNeil has laid questions and made points of order on the issue.

Katy Clark, Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran, is speaking just now, in a debate sponsored by Truro and Falmouth Tory MP Sarah Newton.