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Archives for March 2011

Is it legal to arm the Libyan rebels?

Nick Robinson | 08:24 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

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I understand that the government believes arming the Libyan rebels may be legal in certain circumstances. Although the United Nations has backed an arms embargo on Libya, ministers believe if arming the rebels was the only way to "protect civilians", the over-riding objective of United Nations resolution 1973 - it could be legal.

William Hague

The foreign secretary gave a clear indication of this in answer to a question I asked at the news conference at the end of Tuesday's London Conference:

Robinson: Do you fear that it may not be possible to protect Libyan civilians from the air? Did today's conference discuss the possibility of arming the opposition, as they have requested, or do you fear that if you did so you might be arming some at least who have al-Qaeda sympathies?

William Hague: We didn't discuss at the conference today arming the opposition - that was not one of the subjects for discussion....You're right that this subject has been raised of course by the interim transitional national council. But it is not part of any agreement today- the United Kingdom takes into account the UN Security Council resolutions on this. Those resolutions in our view apply to the whole of Libya. Although it is consistent with the UN Security Council resolution 1973 to give people aid in order to defend themselves in particular circumstances but we haven't discussed that so no new decision to communicate to you about that.

Labour have responded by circulating the prime minister's words in the Commons a few weeks ago:

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Speaking as someone who has watched well-armed Bosnian Serb units smash through civilian populations, may I ask my right hon. Friend the prime minister whether Security Council resolution 1973 allows us, under its provision on "all necessary measures", to avoid the arms embargo and directly arm the people who are fighting against Gaddafi in Benghazi and elsewhere?

The prime minister: The first point I would make to my hon. Friend is how welcome it was that Bosnia was sitting on the Security Council and able to vote in favour of this resolution-for good historical reasons. The resolution helps to enforce the arms embargo, and our legal understanding is that that arms embargo applies to the whole of Libya. Paragraph 4 authorises member states:

"[T]o take all necessary measures...to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack" in Libya, including Benghazi. That is very strong language, which allows states to take a number of military steps to protect people and harm those who are intending to damage civilians. It could not be clearer, and the legal advice is clear."

My understanding is that the National Security Council have not yet discussed any change of policy to arm the rebels.

PS The foreign secretary has added some further detail to the perceived legality of arming the Libyan rebels, in an interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last night. The UK's reading of the UN resolution, said Mr Hague, is that "it might allow equipment to be given to the rebels purely to defend themselves in a limited way". When pressed further on what sort of equipment, he added: "only very limited ones in terms of calibre... But we're not proposing to arm the rebels in any form and not planning to do that - it raises policy as well as legal questions".
His caution was understandable - minutes later on the same programme a spokesman for the Arab League (a crucial partner in the international coalition) warned - albeit rather ambiguously - "we don't talk about arming one group against another group. We have to be careful".

Are we seeing our political future?

Nick Robinson | 10:30 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011

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There they sat. Altogether. Side by side. Supporters of the government and its bitter opponents. Political enemies united by a common goal which excites few - the campaign to change Britain's voting system - but which has the potential to change much.

Ed Charles Kennedy, watched by Caroline Lucas and Ed Miliband at the event

This morning Labour's leader took to the stage with the man some dream of as the Liberal Democrats next leader, the party's President Tim Farron. Alongside them the former leader, whose distaste for his party's coalition with the Conservatives is well known - Charles Kennedy.

Absent was the current leader, Nick Clegg, who couldn't be there for personal reasons - he's in Mexico, which is handy since Ed Miliband didn't want to be seen anywhere near him.

There too today a woman who could tell them all about the power of referendum campaigns to re-shape politics - Shirley Williams. The last UK-wide referendum - held in 1975 on membership of what was then called the Common Market - was the first step toward the splitting of the Labour Party, the creation of the SDP and, eventually, the emergence of the Liberal Democrats.

Now, unlike then, the referendum does not split Williams or, indeed, her Lib Dem colleagues from their leader or the rest of their party - who are united in wanting a Yes vote for the Alternative Vote (AV). Changing the voting system does not, unlike Europe, excite passions. However, it is Farron and Kennedy and Williams - and not Clegg - who today have the chance to chat behind the scenes to Ed Miliband, to swap mobile numbers or to "liaise" about future campaigning opportunities. It is they who will be pondering whether, and how, they could work together one day in government - if, of course, that was what the British electorate made possible.

Miliband will have made that all a little easier by re-stating his belief that there is a progressive majority in Britain which has allowed the Conservative to dominate government by failing to unite.

If all this feels a little far fetched or overstated it's worth recalling what David Cameron said in a documentary about the creation of the Coalition. He revealed that he had first got to know Nick Clegg when they were left together for 45 minutes at the formal opening of the Supreme Court seven months earlier. They didn't discuss a deal or start negotiations but did something much more important - they found out that they got on.

If Ed Miliband is ever to lead his country, and Tim Farron his party, they will have been wise to linger behind the scenes a little today.


Update 1218: If you're one of the many who don't know what the alternative vote is or how it works my report for last night's 10 o'clock news was made for you. It was filmed at a racecourse to highlight the differences with the current first Past the Post system.

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Or you can wait for your explanatory pamphlet from the Electoral Commission which will be delivered to your home in the next week or so.

Reading between the headlines

Nick Robinson | 09:16 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011

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On the morning after the Budget before I was struck by the chancellor's sobering tone. George Osborne has secured the headlines he wanted - welcoming the fuel duty cut, the tax cut for business and the return of the world's biggest advertising group, WPP, to Britain.

George Osborne

However, the upheaval in the Middle East, the continuing instability in the eurozone and growing resistance to spending cuts at home will soon wipe those from the memory.

If the world oil price continues to soar, Portugal has to be bailed out and hundreds of thousands take to the streets this Saturday to protest the chancellor's problems will only just have begun.

Osborne had to strain every sinew simply to limit and postpone tax rises on fuel rather than to scrap them altogether. In six months time he may face demands to do it all again. Added to that there will, no doubt, be calls to stop closures of hospitals, libraries, Sure Start or to reverse other tax rises and benefit cuts or to help this or that industry.

So far much of the talk about spending cuts, benefit curbs and tax rises has been just that - talk. People will really begin to notice the Treasury squeeze at the beginning of the new financial year on 6 April when many of the changes kick in. In the weeks and months after that the spending cuts will begin to be felt.

No wonder the chancellor's sounding sober. No wonder Labour are gambling on it all going wrong.

But will it?

Nick Robinson | 16:55 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

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Put fuel into the tank of the British economy, that is.

George Osborne and the Budget box

That was the chancellor's claim at the end of his Budget speech. Backed by his surprise tax raid on the oil companies and promise to hold fuel duty down George Osborne will, no doubt, have succeeded in writing his own Budget headlines.

The test of today's announcements, however, will not be that or, even, the extent to which his giveaways really do ease the squeeze on incomes given the rise in VAT, cuts to tax credits and rising inflation.

The Budget will, instead, be judged by whether the chancellor's plan to cut business taxes and to lower the hurdles enterprises face in the form of planning laws, tax rules and government regulations will, in reality, help speed the economic recovery.

Today's new independent forecast showed that the economy is not growing as fast as had been hoped and that the recovery would be slower than after the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s.

So, even after the sort of Budget surprise which Gordon Brown would have been proud of, the key debate remains the same. Will today's measures put fuel into the tank, as ministers claim, or is the only way to do that, as Labour insists, to slow down the pace and lessen the depth of public spending cuts.

Petrol pump politics?

Nick Robinson | 13:29 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

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A cut in petrol duty from tonight, the cancellation of all planned increases above inflation and a new "fair fuel stabiliser" - all paid for by the oil companies.

Petrol pump

The result? Fuel duty goes down by 1p a litre now instead of going up, as planned, by between 4-5p. The next time duty will rise in line with inflation is in January 2012.

We were told that that George Osborne would be inspired by Nigel Lawson's tax reforming and Michael Heseltine's activism. His headline grabber looks to have been inspired though by his great political enemy - Gordon Brown.

In 1997 Chancellor Brown raised £5bn in a windfall tax on privatised utilities. The way Chancellor Osborne is paying for a cut in fuel duty is by taxing the oil companies by £2bn a year. He is proposing not a one off windfall tax but a permanent mechanism which taxes the profits of the oil companies when the world oil price goes above a certain level. They would get a tax refund, however, if the price goes below it.

Cutting the cost of fuel was the chancellor's way to ease the squeeze on people.

His corporation tax cut, promise of tax simplification, planning reform and deregulation and the creation of enterprise zones were his recipe for private sector growth.

Update 14:46: Ed Miliband had nothing to say about the chancellor's proposal to tax oil companies more to keep the fuel duty down - surprising given that high fuel prices have been a theme he has pursued.

He was clearly wrong-footed by George Osborne's last-gasp fuel tax surprise but did squeeze in the briefest of mentions by contrasting today's cut with the rise in VAT announced in January:

"The chancellor cut duty by 1p but whacked up VAT on fuel by 3p - families won't be fooled, it's Del Boy economics".

However, the Labour leader's key focus was to ridicule a so-called "Budget for Growth" that downgraded the immediate growth forecast. That drop in growth and the other bigger pressures on incomes - not a penny or two less of an increase in fuel prices - will, he believes, shape the economics and the politics of the next year.

Budget 2011 analysis

Nick Robinson | 12:50 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

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Re-fuelling the economy?

George Osborne

The chancellor begins with a promise to help families with the cost of fuel. Duty is clearly coming down and by more than scrapping this year's penny on top of inflation. The Budget surprise may be how far he goes and how he pays for it.

There was no surprise in the economic forecasts, though, beyond the claim that slower growth this year creates "scope" for higher growth later, which generated some hollow laughter in the Commons.

No surprise either that George Osborne said: "Britain has a plan and we are sticking to it."

Update 13:01: A tax cut, a tax rise and the vision thing

Another 1% off corporation tax - on top of the 1% previously announced - that's the headline pledge for business.

The overnight story of a personal tax cut for individuals will, though, be outweighed for some by an important and dull sounding technical change - upgrading many tax allowances by the CPI measure of inflation rather than RPI is a tax increase. In other words, the tax free amount will be increased less than it would have been for ISAs, Capital Gains Tax, and employee national insurance contributions.

The vision the chancellor outlined is a simpler, fairer tax system and private sector job creation in the regions instead of what he dubbed a "debt fuelled economy".

Half Hezza, half Lawson

Nick Robinson | 09:09 UK time, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

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George Osborne doesn't want to go down in history simply as the chancellor who made record spending cuts. He wants to be seen as a great reformer. I'm told that he has his eye on emulating two of the Big Beasts of the last Tory era - Michael Heseltine and Nigel Lawson.

Nigel Lawson and Michael Heseltine

Hezza, you may recall, promised to intervene "before breakfast, lunch and dinner" when he was president of the Board of Trade. George Osborne's activism will include new style enterprise zones designed to attract businesses to areas struggling to grow, more apprenticeships and a new emphasis on vocational education.

Lawson is still revered in Tory circles as the great tax reformer. Today the chancellor will use a little read document produced by his own creation - the Office of Tax Simplification - to promise an era of lower, simpler taxes. The office identified no fewer than 1042 tax reliefs and proposed abolishing a raft of them ranging from tax-free coal for miners to luncheon vouchers and meals on cycle-to-work-days. Much more significant, though, were their proposals to merge national insurance and income tax and review the workings of inheritance tax.

National Insurance - created by an Act of Parliament exactly a century ago to pay for old age pensions - has long since become just another pot of Treasury cash. Gordon Brown raised it to pay for the NHS after the 2001 election and Alistair Darling raised it again to help balance the books after the banking crisis. The fact that it has different thresholds from income tax and is administered by employers in a different way can, it's argued, lead to perverse outcomes and high bureaucratic costs. It also allows for easier stealth tax rises. It will be fascinating to see how far and how fast Osborne the reformer feels he can go.

Osborne will know his history well enough to know that a Budget hailed on the day can turn into one condemned long after. Lawson's boldest Budget - in 1988 - cut the basic and the top rate of tax. It was blamed by many later for fuelling - instead of curbing - the excessive growth of the time. That's a problem Osborne would love to be able to worry about but he will know that his Budget - like that one - is likely to be judged later by whether the chancellor was right to stick to his economic policy or should have taken the chance to change it.

PS Having written the line half Hezza and half Lawson I'm finding it hard to get the image of a chubby short chap with flowing blonde locks out of my head...

Every little helps

Nick Robinson | 22:54 UK time, Tuesday, 22 March 2011

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The chancellor has no money to spend in his Budget but he'll find a little from tax avoidance and taxing private jets to try to ease the squeeze on people's incomes.

I understand that he will increase the personal tax allowance again in order to give 25 million tax payers an income tax cut of around £45 - after inflation - per year.

The amount of income anyone can earn before paying tax will be increased by around £600 from April 2012 but, unlike last year, taxpayers on both the 20% and 40% tax rates will benefit - ie anyone earning up to £115,000 per year.

The coalition is committed to increasing the personal tax allowance to £10,000 by the end of its time in office. In last year's Budget the chancellor announced an increase in the tax free allowance of £1,000 from April 2011 but said that all higher rate taxpayers would not benefit.

Treasury sources claim that taken together these two changes will amount to a £200/year tax cut by 2012 after taking account of inflation.

This is, of course, budgetary loose change and relatively dwarfed by VAT rises and tax credit cuts. What he does on fuel duty will matter most to most people.

Long term, however, it will be the extent to which he embraces tax reform - sweeping away tax reliefs and merging income tax and national insurance - which will define him and this Budget.

Not Blair

Nick Robinson | 18:00 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

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This is not Iraq. Nothing like it. I am not Blair. Nothing like him.

That was the central message running through a politically adept and remarkably assured Commons performance by the prime minister.

His performance was low key rather than impassioned. It came in a debate which will end with a proper vote (rather than the vote on the Iraq war which ended with a more technical parliamentary voting procedure). It followed the publication of legal advice.

The key to it, though, was David Cameron's invitation to a series of potential critics to ask him questions and raise their doubts. Whether they were left-wing Labour MPs, the leaders of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, or backbench Tory sceptics, he told them that they had made a very important point and sought to reassure them. It took all the potential heat from the occasion.

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He stressed that this was not his war but one to enforce the will of the UN. Its aims were limited to enforcing a no-fly zone and protecting civilians. It would not involve "knocking down" the government of Libya, nor occupying their nation. This seemed to settle nerves in the Commons for now about possible mission creep. Even his long term critic Dennis Skinner declared himself satisfied that the objective was not regime change and would not involve an invasion.

The result was not just widespread parliamentary consensus but a sense that everything had been said before the leader of the opposition stood up. Ed Miliband also made a powerful speech but the cruelty of opposition is that few will notice.

Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband speaking in the House of Commons

PS: What, though, of the confusion about whether Gaddafi can be targeted? Here's my understanding.

Yes, he can be, providing that ministers could show that it was "necessary" - in the words of the UN resolution - to protect civilians.

General Richards misspoke this morning when he said it was illegal. However he was trying to reassure those with concerns that the objective of the military action was regime change - to stick in line with the US military and to avoid undermining support at the UN, in the Arab world and, indeed, in Libya itself.

Gaddafi is not currently being targeted as it would be politically counter-productive to do so. But that could change and ministers want to keep him guessing.

This is what David Cameron said this afternoon: "Targets must be fully consistent with the UN Security Council resolution. We, therefore, choose our targets to stop attacks on civilians and to implement the no-fly zone but we should not give a running commentary on targeting and I don't propose to say any more on the subject than that."

He also said: "The UN resolution is limited in its scope. It explicitly does not provide legal authority for action to bring about Gaddafi's removal from power by military means."

PS Thanks to the colleague who pointed out that my post gave the impression that the vote on the Iraq was a vote on the adjournment. It was - like today - a substantive motion. The conflict in Afghanistan began controversially without what many MPs regarded as a proper vote.


How will Libya end? (Part II)

Nick Robinson | 15:46 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

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Intense scenario planning is going on inside the Ministry of Defence to prepare every possible answer to that question.


Ajdabiya reservoir

Water from the Ajdabiya reservoir may prove to be decisive

One - and let me stress just one - scenario being planned for is a battle for control of the Libyan city of Ajdabiya, which is about 100 miles (160 km) south of Benghazi. A withdrawal from Ajdabiya was one of the demands set out by President Obama. With control of that city, a Libyan free state could be created alongside a state controlled by Gaddafi. Without it, he would retain a stranglehold on the key rebel city.

The reason, I'm told, is water and power. The city of Benghazi relies on Ajdabiya for both. There is a fear that Benghazi may have as little as a week's supply of water. Water is supplied by what Colonel Gaddafi hailed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" - what is known as the "Great Man-Made River" - which claims to be the world's largest irrigation project. How possible it would be for him to block the flow I do not know but others are looking into just that.

The Prime Minister has just spelt out that one condition of a ceasefire is to establish water, electricity and gas supplies in the cities of Benghazi, Ajdabiya and Misrata.

The military problem is that Gaddafi's forces are already inside the city of Ajdabiya. The only way to get them out without massive civilian casualties would be to bomb and destroy their supply lines. In other words - more bombing raids and not just the creation of a no-fly zone once Libyan air defences are destroyed.

Gaddafi is a tightrope walk for Hague and Fox

Nick Robinson | 12:54 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

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The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, has just said that Colonel Gaddafi is "absolutely not" a target for military action. Speaking after a meeting in Downing Street he told the BBC: "It's not allowed under the UN resolution."

UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox

This morning, when asked the same question about whether Gaddafi would be specifically targeted, the Foreign Secretary William Hague said it all depended on the circumstances.

Last night the Defence Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC's John Pienaar that targeting the Libyan leader would "potentially be a possibility".

Ministers are wobbling on a verbal tightrope. They want to say nothing that fuels Gaddafi's propaganda, nor spooks the carefully-built coalition. But at the same time they want to keep their military options open.

Here is Liam Fox's exchange:

John Pienaar: "Now the allies have attacked command and control centres as well as air defences. Obviously Gaddafi is at the pinnacle of command and control. Does that make him a legitimate target? If it was possible to hit him without unacceptable civilian casualties, would you try to do that?"

Liam Fox: "Well that would potentially be a possibility but you mention immediately one of the problems we would have. Which is that you would have to take into account any civilian casualties that might result from that and at all times we are very careful to avoid that for its humanitarian reasons, but also for the propaganda reasons that it would provide for the regime itself."

Update 14:50: Another wobble and ministers may fall off this particular tightrope.

Government sources are now contradicting the Chief of the Defence Staff insisting that it IS legal under the UN resolution to target Colonel Gaddafi if he is a threat to the civilian population of Libya.

What the General and the politicians agree on is that - as a matter of fact - Libya's leader is NOT currently being targeted.

The UN resolution's phrase "all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas" appears to exclude very little. So little that the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin today told workers at a Russian ballistic missile factory:

<blockquote>"It allows everything. It resembles medieval calls for crusades."</blockquote>

The limit on what can be done is probably more to do with keeping the coalition together than with legality. However, targeting Gaddafi personally would be seen by many as disproportionate, outside the spirit of the UN resolution and, potentially, cause problems for President Obama since he is required to give an executive order before a head of state is targeted.

How will Libya end?

Nick Robinson | 08:25 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

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The military operation in Libya has scarcely begun. Just days ago the Prime Minister was accused of "loose talk", told he lacked a plan to back up his calls for a no-fly zone and that he could not assemble the necessary alliance.


A tank belonging to forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi explodes after an air strike by coalition forces

Yet after the second night of bombing, after the second promise of a ceasefire from the Gaddafi regime, David Cameron is now facing a new question: "how will it end?"

This is how the era of 24/7 news complicates the already delicate process of holding together a broad international alliance which knows what it is against - attacks on civilians - but hasn't agreed what it is in favour of or when and how the military action should stop.

Evidence of the problems that could lie ahead came throughout yesterday.

The Secretary of the Arab League was reported as condemning the overnight loss of civilian lives. Diplomats claim he was quoted without knowledge of what had actually happened - his quote included the words: "the military developments that happened today, I really have no reports as of yet".

The chancellor, then the foreign secretary and then the defence secretary seemed to wriggle when asked on the Sunday TV shows to rule out British boots on the ground. Labour's Ed Miliband will, I'm told, seek an assurance from the prime minister that he is not disowning the promise he delivered on Friday that "no one is talking about invasions or boots on the ground". He is likely, I'm told, to try to reassure by restating the terms of the UN resolution whilst not ruling out that a single British boot - particularly one owned by a member of Special Forces - will ever touch Libyan soil.

Another question likely to be raised in today's Commons debate is the targeting of Colonel Gaddafi himself. In an interview with Five Live's John Pienaar, Liam Fox seemed to suggest that only concern about civilian casualties would stop the Libyan leader being personally targeted. Again, I understand that the prime minister - like the Americans - will try to play down talk of targetting the Colonel emphasising that the resolution allows for the destruction of Gaddafi's military in order to protect civilians.

In truth the resolution's backing for "all necessary measures" and rejection of an occupation of Libya leaves some latitude. It is, though, the need to maintain broad international support which means that, for now, at least, they will be interpreted narrowly. After all, forces from Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Italy, Spain, Denmark and even Belgium are due to join those from the US, UK and France.

What if there is soon a stalemate or, worse, bloody civil war underneath the no-fly zone? No one can say for now. Indeed, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has said "it's very uncertain how this ends".

This crisis has many, many more days to run.

Cameron's first war

Nick Robinson | 23:45 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

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When the prime minister first spoke about a no-fly zone for Libya I wrote a post entitled Cameron's first war?:

David Cameron
"It happens to every prime minister.
 
"There comes a moment when they take a decision which could lead to the loss of British servicemen and women's lives in military action."

Some of David Cameron's allies suggested I was guilty of hyperbole.

Yet officials in Downing Street, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office will be working into the early hours taking the final steps to co-ordinate military action in Libya with the French, the Americans and Gulf states including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Earlier a government source told me that British forces could be in action as early as tomorrow (Friday), but more likely within days.

Although Defence Secretary Liam Fox stated a few days ago that a no-fly zone could be established without air strikes, I understand that they are being actively considered.

The biggest problem is, I'm told, successfully establishing targets.

The hope of ministers is that tonight's UN decision will persuade senior figures in the Gaddafi regime to refuse to obey orders, to turn on their leader or to defect to the opposition.

For the next few hours this looks set to be as much about psychological warfare as it is about the use of military force.

Colonel Gaddafi must decide whether to try to take Benghazi before Britain, France and the Gulf states can agree on their military strategy or whether to sit tight and provide no casus belli.

David Cameron will feel a sense of vindication tonight.

An idea which was condemned as sabre-rattling, unworkable and unnecessary has been agreed after days of intense diplomacy.

What he will also know is that the hard part starts now.

Too late?

Nick Robinson | 09:34 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011

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As Colonel Gaddafi's promises to crush the uprising in Libya echo grimly around them, diplomats at the United Nations will begin discussions on a resolution which they might vote on this week. On the other hand, they might not.

President Obama

On Monday William Hague said the world had now reached the point of decision. It might, perhaps, have been more accurate to say that the world had extended the period of indecision.

Already the political blame game is beginning. David Cameron is trying hard to hide his frustration with President Obama. I'm told that he's not always succeeding.

The new French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe is not being so diplomatic. I now have the full version of his statement to the French parliament yesterday in which he blames the EU, China, Russia but, above all, America.

"If today we are stuck, it's not only because Europe is impotent, it's because at the Security Council, for now, China doesn't want any mention of a resolution leading to the international community's interference in a country's affairs... but what about American power? What about Russian power? What's China's power over Libya?... Russia is evolving and the Americans haven't yet defined their position on Libya."

Evidence of that lack of American definition came in yesterday's White House briefing after the president met his national security team to discuss Libya. The official "read out" stated that:

"The President instructed his team to continue to fully engage in the discussions at the United Nations, NATO and with partners and organizations in the region."

No wonder yesterday's White House press briefing included questions suggesting the president was "sitting on the fence", "satisfied to follow not lead" and needed to make a decision (see transcript below). Leadership, the press pack were told by a defensive White House press spokesman, involves considering the mission, it's likelihood of success and the risks it poses.

That is the debate that will soon follow. Did David Cameron give the lead on Libya only to discover that the world was too weak, too divided, too scared of the shadow of Iraq to act? Or did the prime minister deploy his rhetoric before developing a workable plan, fail to persuade crucial allies and, thus, raise false hopes of what the world would do to help the uprising in Libya.

Meanwhile in Bahrain...

PS Mark Mardell's blog post and Today programme essay is fascinating. Here's the transcript of the White House press briefing

Q: On no-fly zone, what exactly is the US - the administration's position before the Security Council?

Mr Carney: Our position, Chip, remains that we are evaluating a number of options, military options, including -

Q: But a decision has to be made now.

Mr Carney: - including a no-fly zone. We feel that it is important that any action like that that might be taken should be done in concert with our international partners. Though the United Nations would be our preferable vehicle for that, and therefore we would look to the UN as a forum for evaluating that option. I think I mentioned yesterday that today is the deadline for the no-fly zone option to - preparations or plans to be submitted in Brussels at NATO. And I believe the NAC will review those tomorrow. So this process is moving forward.

But our position is that action like that should be considered and taken if decided upon in coordination with our international partners, because it's very important in the way that we respond to a situation like we see in Libya, that it be international and not unilateral; that it include the support and participation, for example, of the Arab League and other organizations and countries in the region.

And that is our sort of focus as we proceed with these conversations.

Q: Is the President satisfied to follow, not lead, on deciding whether to do it?

Mr Carney: I take issue with the characterization. We think it is precisely because the President believes that the best outcome in a situation like we see in Libya, as we have seen in different forms in other countries in the region, that the best outcome will come when the action taken by countries - third-party countries outside of the country where the unrest is happening - be done in consensus with international partners, precisely so that it is not viewed by those who oppose positive democratic reform as the dictate of the West or the United States.

Q: But wouldn't it be fair to say - accurate to say the United States is still sitting on the fence on this? Isn't it time to make a decision, yes or no?

Mr Carney: Well, Chip, you tell me if as an American citizen would you want your President not to consider all the implications and ramifications of taking military action.

Q: Doesn't there come a point to make a - where you have to make a decision?

Mr Carney: And I would go back to what I said to Jill, that we have acted with great haste, and we have coordinated international - led and coordinated an international response, the likes of which the world has never seen in such a short period of time. And we have - we continue to consult with our international partners. We meet - we have met with, as the Secretary of State did, with the Libyan opposition discussing new ways we can put pressure on Qaddafi.

And when it comes to considering military options, this President will always be mindful of what the mission, should it be engaged, what it entails, the risks that it poses to our men and women in uniform, and its likelihood of having the kind of impact that we set out for it to have. And that is his responsibility as Commander-in-Chief.

And I would suggest to you that that is what leadership is all about.

Yes, Mike.

Q: Is he worried about, though, the bureaucracy of making this decision with our allies, that by the time a decision is made the conflict may be over? I mean, the rebels may have gone home.

Mr Carney: We are obviously aware of the situation in Libya and the events and the fighting that's happening there. Again, I do not believe that the American people would want the US President to act unilaterally in a way to engage militarily without taking careful consideration of what the consequences of that would be; what the goals of the action would be; and being, as we have said from the beginning, very mindful of the fact that the desired result here will be best achieved if we act in concert with our international partners. And that is the position he's taken, and it's the position he takes today.

Over to Obama

Nick Robinson | 21:54 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

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Tonight Britain, France and Lebanon have tabled a United Nations resolution which would impose a no-fly zone on Libya.

The resolution also proposes a ban on Libyan commercial aircraft landing in other countries - to stop them being used to carry arms and mercenaries - and a call for tougher monitoring to enforce the UN arms embargo, the asset freeze and the travel ban which are designed to put pressure on the Gaddafi regime.

London and Paris have made their move without knowing whether the United States will back it. The question that is ringing around Downing Street is "what does Obama think?"

Rather than wait for an answer the prime minister, along with President Sarkozy, has decided to try to force the diplomatic pace.

Today, after G8 foreign ministers followed the EU in refusing to sign up to a no-fly zone, the foreign secretary was forced to admit that "not every nation sees eye-to-eye on issues such as a no-fly zone".

His French counterpart Alain Juppe went further, declaring that "we are stuck" and blaming it not just on China's traditional resistance to intervening in other countries' internal affairs but on the fact that "Europe is impotent".

Today the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle declared:

"Military intervention is not the solution. From our point of view it is very difficult and dangerous... we do not want to get sucked into a war in North Africa and we would not like to step on a slippery slope where we all are, at the end, in a war."
What, though, of President Obama? The Americans have stressed that if there is to be a no-fly zone the initiative should come from the region.

That's why tonight's resolution is being presented in co-operation with Lebanon, which represents the Arab League on the UN Security Council. The White House is said to want to see Arab military involvement, not just diplomatic backing.

The question which is worrying Downing Street though is - would even that be enough?

The British government is waiting to find out whether President Obama is opposed to any military intervention and whether his concerns about the situation in the Gulf - Bahrain and Saudi Arabia - will override any interest he has in North Africa.

Above all they are wondering just how long will it be before we find out what the president thinks about Libya.

An argument over a fiver

Nick Robinson | 14:35 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011

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"Tax the bankers more and spend the £2bn you raise on creating 110,000 jobs," the Eds say.

"They've already promised that they would spend £12bn they haven't got," replies George.

"That's balls," replies Balls (actually he said it was "totally utter garbage and claptrap").

"We'd cut VAT on fuel," say the Eds.

"But hold on, your government is responsible for increasing duty by 1% above inflation for the next four years," says George.

And so on and so on.

Forgive me for sounding weary after this morning's exchanges about the economy, but I am. This is, as someone once said, the narcissism of small differences. Or to put it less grandly, it is political positioning by both the opposition and the government about small measures and relatively small sums of money ahead of the Budget.

My weariness stems from having reported a similar argument about £6bn in cuts, before an election which would produce the biggest spending cuts since World War II whichever party was elected. It is the equivalent of a row about a fiver dropped on the floor when you are having your house repossessed.

I am not, however, arguing that there is no difference between the parties and the deficit. There is and it's a big one. But oddly, it suits all involved not to highlight it clearly.

Labour do believe that the government is cutting too far and too fast. What's more Ed Balls believes that his own government was planning to cut too far and too fast. Today he hinted that he would have revised Alastair Darling's plans for spending cuts this year.

He repeatedly pointed out that the Treasury had £20bn more to play with than it expected, thanks to unemployment being lower last year than feared, and the fact that budget plans are always re-written in response to new economic data.

However, he did not and will not spell out what he would have done with that money. Not just because he hasn't "got all the figures" but because like all canny opposition politicians he wants the debate to focus on the government's plan and not his.

The Treasury don't want to have a debate about "Plan B", or what to do about, say, the collapse in construction jobs for young men - a problem I know they are discussing behind the scenes. That's because they, in turn, want the political to-and-fro to focus not on their proposals but on Labour's credibility.

And that is how you end up with today's not entirely illuminating exchanges.

Familiar tactics in economic battleground

Nick Robinson | 09:55 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011

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The next election may be more than four years away, yet this morning the Conservatives have released an election-style dossier aiming to prove that Labour's spending commitments don't add up. You know the sort of thing - frontbencher A attacked the government's plan to cut Project B so "ker-ching" (is that how you spell the sound of a cash till?!) - that'll be three billion quid please.

Put aside the detail for a moment, the Tories key point is that Labour tends to tell you what it wouldn't cut and not what it would, despite the fact that their own plan to half the deficit in four years would - according to Treasury figures - have involved cuts this coming year (2011-12) just £2bn short of what the government is proposing.

The release of the dossier has been timed to coincide with the first joint news conference at which we will see whether two Eds are better than one. It comes a week and two days before the next budget. Ed Miliband and Ed Balls want to highlight their pledge to be on the side of the motorist by scrapping the VAT increase on fuel whilst neatly ignoring the fact that the inflation-plus-1p duty increase due in April was announced in Alastair Darling's last Budget.

It's a reminder that a. Elections are looming b. Economic credibility remains the key battleground in British politics and c. That George Osborne and Ed Balls are desperate for a scrap.

Dare I suggest that this battle is more likely to be won by who turns out to be right about the state of the economy in a year or two than it is by these wearily familiar exchanges?

A long and difficult summit

Nick Robinson | 18:09 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011

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Brussels: Rarely have I seen David Cameron look so frustrated. He strode into his post-summit news conference with his mouth puckered as he blew out hard.

He rattled through his prepared statement. His emphasis was not on what the EU had achieved but the dangers that lay ahead.

Gaddafi was "still on the rampage" he said. Things may be getting worse not better.

There was a risk that Libya would become a "failed pariah state". Most significantly, though, he said the world had to learn, not just the lesson of Iraq, but the lesson of Bosnia where there wasn't military action even when it was necessary to protect thousands of civilians.

The prime minister, it is only fair to report, insisted publicly that he was not frustrated but behind the scenes officials described "a long and difficult" summit at which the EU's 27 leaders had spent two or three hours arguing about the exact wording of their declaration on Libya.

Out went a specific reference to no-fly zones - a setback for David Cameron. In went the words "all necessary means" after, sources claimed, the prime minister and the EU's Herman Van Rompuy drafted a "satisfactory" compromise which could be accepted by hawks and doves alike.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear in her post-summit news conference that her country was a long way from supporting any such action.

At issue, though, was not just the question of whether Nato or its members (21 of whom were sat around the summit table) should or could intervene militarily in Libya but something much more fundamental.

A number of East European states - the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia - argued that the Arab Spring was not equivalent to the re-birth of democracy in their countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Some, I'm told, argued, in effect, that "the Arabs don't do democracy".

Saif Gaddafi may believe that it's time for action (see earlier post) but many here in Brussels do not agree.

Time for action?

Nick Robinson | 12:20 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011

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Brussels: It's time for action says Saif Gaddafi and you sense he means it. The question now is - do the leaders of Europe and the United States mean it?

David Cameron

Today's extraordinary EU Summit will, no doubt, issue a strong declaration calling on Gaddafi to go, toughening sanctions against his regime, warning those who violate human rights that they will be held accountable and opening a dialogue with the Libyan opposition. This, though, seems unlikely to figure much in the calculations of either Gadaffi or his sons. They have the look of men who agree with the assessment of America's director of National Intelligence who declared yesterday that "over the longer term the regime will prevail".

In this city yesterday NATO defence ministers agreed to continue planning for a no fly zone but, as the US Defence Secretary Bob Gates put it, "that's the extent of it". An analysis in today's New York Times says that Barack Obama is choosing in this crisis to behave more as a pragmatic president protecting America's national interests and less as a "transformative national figure".

The prime minister may be relieved that France's President Sarkozy has now outflanked him in what Bob Gates called "loose talk" about the use of military force. He will know that the Japanese earthquake and tsunami will move the daily new focus away from Libya. With the Budget looming he wants to get the national conversation back onto domestic matters.

David Cameron is also aware, though, that it will only take one set of gruesome pictures emerging from Libya for the cry to go up that it's time for action - time, all-too familiarly, that "something must be done".

Will it, by then, be too late to make any difference?

PS The real agenda of today's leaders summit focuses on how the EU can use its trade and aid policies to act as what William Hague calls a "magnet" to reformers in North Africa and the Arab world.

For more than a decade the EU had an "association agreement" with Egypt which demanded that the government in Cairo should end its state of emergency. It was toothless and ineffective. Other countries in the EU's "neighbourhood" are Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia whose policies have remained similarly unaffected by EU declarations. The prime minister will argue today that those countries that reform should get more cash and more access to European markets. He will be fighting France and the Mediterranean countries who tend to see their neighbours as the source of unwanted immigrants rather than trading partners.

It will be interesting to see how the newer members of the EU react. After all, the leaders of 10 of the 27 countries represented around the table grew up under Soviet era dictatorships. A further three - the Greeks, Spanish and Portuguese - also recall what it's like to live without freedom, democracy or the rule of law.

Where was William?

Nick Robinson | 13:23 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

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The prime minister described him as "excellent". He took "full responsibility" for what had gone wrong with the special forces' mission to Libya. He even used questions about the foreign secretary's alleged incompetence to deliver a wounding blow to Ed Miliband - pointing out that there was only one person, the Labour leader himself, who'd recently knifed a foreign secretary. But where was William Hague - the man whose downbeat performances have fuelled endless chatter in the Westminster village about why he's lost his mojo?


William Hague (Reuters)

The answer is that he was somewhere even more important - briefing Her Majesty the Queen on Libya.

Having seen dozens of foreign secretaries over the course of her reign it would be fascinating to know what she said to him - whether she offered words of comfort. I have a hunch that he will have told her that Britain faces being damned if we do intervene - for not learning the lessons of Iraq, for putting more British soldiers lives at risk, for stretching the armed forces even more than they are already ...etc - and damned if we don't - how can we standby whilst Gaddafi slaughters his people, won't other dictators learn that they can do what they like without fear of international reprisal, are we diminished on the world stage.

Perhaps that's why the foreign secretary doesn't look like he's having fun.

PS A brief note by way of a mea culpa to the policeman who stopped me on the way into the Commons today, and to some of his colleagues who've been in touch. London Met police STAFF not, as I said on the Six O' Clock News last night, London Met police OFFICERS qualify for double time rates for Sunday working. The perils of live reporting - it's a fair cop...

Crossing the thin blue line

Nick Robinson | 08:13 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

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Ministers are on standby for trouble. Big trouble.

They expect a march on Whitehall. They know they'll face a wave of anger. They are ready for charges of betrayal. And they won't be able to call on the police to help.


Police line up (Getty Images)

It is the police themselves that the government is preparing to confront. This is the day when a report will blow the whistle on generous police allowances, overtime and bonuses.

At any time this would be hugely controversial. Remember that the Sheehy Report into cutting police perks was seen off in the 1990s. Ken Clarke who had taken on and beaten the nurses and the ambulance drivers met his match when faced by the boys in blue. Remember Jacqui Smith who faced a police march and protests at her home when she refused to backdate a police pay award.

This, though, isn't any time. It's the time when police pay has been frozen, police pensions (along with others in the public sector) are about to be curbed and jobs are to be cut. Jobs will - ministers hope - be their trump card. They will argue that if today's report by Tom Winsor is adopted, huge sums could be saved without cutting jobs.

The Police Federation gained headlines recently for a prediction that there'd be 40,000 job cuts. The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) estimate today that that figure will be much lower - although 28,000 is still a very large proportion of the 143,000 serving officers. Ministers will offer the police and the public a trade off - lose the perks and keep jobs or keep the perks and see numbers fall.

There's one big problem. The men and women the government's preparing to take on are the very same people who will be expected to be in the front line when ministers face the anger of others whose pay and pensions and jobs and services will be cut. Margaret Thatcher took the precaution of increasing police pay and budgets before putting them in the front line in the 1980s.

Resigned but not resigning

Nick Robinson | 16:45 UK time, Monday, 7 March 2011

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I followed the advice. I take responsibility.

William Hague

That was how William Hague dealt with criticism that the Foreign Office had successfully got an aircraft into Libya - unlike it's failure to get any in two weeks ago - only to see the special forces and alleged spy onboard instantly arrested.

The foreign secretary appeared demoralised or, perhaps, bored by the attacks on him for what has gone wrong in recent weeks. He simply absorbed the blows which came from both the opposition and his own side without hitting back.

The shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander attacked the "serial bungling" of the Foreign Office and - in a risky but effective parliamentary mission - played Hague at his own game. Alexander mocked the weekend mission pointing out that it was just two miles from the safety of the Royal Navy to the Libyan courthouse where the SAS landed their chopper. If neighbours moved in next door to the foreign secretary, he asked, wouldn't it be better to ring the doorbell to say hello rather than to climb the fence in the middle of the night?

Sir Menzies Campbell called the mission this weekend "ill-conceived, poorly planned and embarrassingly executed" and asked what could be done to restore the credibility of the Foreign Office.

Tory backbenchers Sir Malcolm Rifkind, John Redwood, Edward Leigh, Julian Brazier, John Baron and Rory Stewart all warned against a no fly zone or any military intervention at all.

The only person who rose in support of an embattled Hague was Bernard Jenkin who told him to take credit for what went right as well as blame for what had gone wrong. It was, joked Hague, a concept he was unfamiliar with after four years as Tory leader. If he is beginning to compare the stress of being foreign secretary with being the first Tory leader to face a triumphant Tony Blair the government has a problem.

The Barnsley chop

Nick Robinson | 16:00 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011

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How much should anyone care about the Lib Dems vote-shedding, deposit-losing, morale-sapping plummet from second to sixth place in Barnsley Central?

Labour party candidate Dan Jarvis celebrates winning the Barnsley Central by-election

I'm going to leave the trading of historical by election stats to others. No amount of swapping stories about Labour's collapse in the Dullsville contest of 1989 or the turnout in Hasty and Slapdash will resolve that question.

The local elections and contests for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly will show whether the vote collapse in Barnsley reflects a nationwide phenomenon or, as leading Lib Dems hope, is limited to traditional Tory hating, working class areas of the North.

The reasons not to care that much about this result are clear - the Lib Dems had no chance here, they didn't try very hard, we are a long long way from a general election and the party leadership always knew that this year would be tough.

The reasons to care are less to do with the stats and more to do with the fact that politics - particularly third party politics - is a team sport. The Lib Dems electoral gains in recent years have relied not on cash and advertising but on activists - many of whom earn their living as councillors. If this result and those in May leaves them not merely demoralised but ready to walk away from their party or to fight their leaders then - and only then - the Lib Dems will face a real crisis.

Under the party's rules it takes just 75 local parties to trigger a leadership contest. The question they will have to ask themselves though is the one most Lib Dem MPs have already answered - wouldn't abandoning the coalition merely make their position even worse?

Hague laughs off 'Gove clash'

Nick Robinson | 19:36 UK time, Thursday, 3 March 2011

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I was in Paris today with the foreign secretary - a man facing claims that he's seen as a dove by some in the Cabinet, at the same time as some say that even the US defence secretary regards Britain's position as too hawkish.

William Hague told me that the government and the world are more united than people think.

"I think this has been a remarkable period actually for unity in the international community. We have a unanimous vote at the UN Security Council, unanimous vote in the UN human rights council and we're also unanimous at home about what we should be doing..."

I asked him about supposed clashes within the Cabinet with the reportedly more hawkish Michael Gove. "Did the education secretary tell you the foreign office had been too slow on this?" I asked.

Hague's answer was rather revealing:

"I wouldn't comment on confidential cabinet meetings or on whatever I might have said about the education department."

After a pause and a nervous laugh he added "I'm only joking".

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What a difference a day made

Nick Robinson | 08:09 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011

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On Monday, the prime minister said "we do not in any way rule out the use of military assets. We must not tolerate this regime using military force against its own people".

David Cameron

 

His spokesman turned down repeated opportunities to narrow down what this meant. Asked whether Britain would be willing to arm rebel groups, David Cameron said: "it is certainly something we should be considering."

This produced - as it was bound to - a slew of front page stories and my provocatively-titled blog post (Cameron's first war?) about possible military action in Libya.

On Tuesday, Downing Street stressed that, far from military action, all that was being talked about was contingency planning for a military no-fly zone IF there was a humanitarian disaster in Libya and IF our allies agrees.

So, what changed?

Cameron's aides say very little. They blame a mixture of journalistic hype and their own failure to brief more carefully for stories which, they say, failed to reflect the prime minister's own words of caution about the potential difficulties of a no-fly zone.

However, there is no doubt the prime minister was sabre rattling. There is also no doubt that that caused real concern in parts of the cabinet, anger in parts of the military, diplomatic fears that Colonel Gaddafi could use talk of military action to rally his country against the countries that bombed Tripoli in 1986 and warnings from the US defence secretary about the dangers of using the military in "another country in the Middle East".

On Monday David Cameron risked sounding Blair-like. I say "risked" as before coming to office he had warned against the "liberal interventionism - the idea that we should just get out there into the world and 'sort it all out'". In a speech in Berlin in 2007 he said that this was "the right impulse; was morally correct, but failed to strike the right balance between realism and idealism".

Now his aides are presenting him as much more like John Major - who pushed for no-fly zones to protect the Iraqi Kurds in 1991 but resisted the pressure from those who said the world could not stand by as Milosevic killed thousands in Bosnia and bloody massacres scarred Rwanda.

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