As efforts to establish a ceasefire foundered in August 2006, over 100 Labour MPs demanded a recall of parliament to discuss the government’s strategy regarding the Israeli attack on southern Lebanon. Whilst no British forces were engaged, Labour members were sufficiently concerned about the government’s disastrous record in the Middle East, not only its standing amongst the people of the region but also at home, following mass opposition to the Iraq war and the punishment meted out to the party by the electorate a year previously.
Now we are starting to hear demands for a recall of parliament during the Easter recess to discuss military action in Libya. UN resolution 1973 was agreed to establish a no-fly zone but in an article last week, Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama made clear “it is unthinkable [that Gaddafi] can play a part in Libya’s future government”. To help achieve that goal of regime change, we hear today that the government is sending a “military liaison advisory team” to Libya to assist the opposition in Benghazi, the Guardian reports the EU is considering the deployment of 1500 troops to Libya and France is considering sending in commandos.
The existing – and growing – engagement of British forces makes it even more urgent than in 2006 to fully scrutinise the government’s decisions. It is the often repeated phrase of ‘mission creep’, or ‘mission gallop’, as one campaigner described it, that needs discussing. OnMarch 21st, when MPs discussed and voted upon military action, they did not vote for regime change – that authorisation was not sought. Many of those voting with the government expressed their concern about the risks of mission creep – concerns that are now being realised. It is worth reflecting on the debate.
To both Emily Thornberry and Dennis Skinner, David Cameron said explicitly, “This is not going into a country and knocking over its government.”
Madeleine Moon, a Labour member of the Commons Defence Committee said, “there is no clear indication of whether regime change is an objective. No one today has clarified that exit strategy,” whilst Dai Havard, the Vice-Chair of the same committee, also asked of the government’s legal advice, “Is there clarity about having no troops on the ground in Libya?” Katy Clark, who did vote against the government, echoed many concerns at the wording of both the UN and Commons resolution, saying, “The wording of the UN resolution is very wide, and the reference to “all necessary measures” in some ways gives a blank cheque to the powers taking action.”
But what of the front bench? Clearly the Labour leadership backed the government decision, but not without some qualification. Ed Miliband said, “This is not a power play or an attempt to install a new government by force. This is the ‘last resort’ to protect the Libyan people,” whilst Douglas Alexander was even more categoric, saying that Cameron was not asking for “and would not be entitled to a mandate to pursue armed regime change.” In the context of the demands for a recall of parliament this Easter, Fiona Mactaggart’s contribution is relevant, when she asked that “the House is given constant opportunities to review the situation, so that we can be assured that mission creep is not taking place and that we are not going beyond what is necessary, and so that we can make the right decision at the appropriate time?”
What could be more reasonable to ask? Surely that time is now. I hope some of those who backed the call in 2006 will support it now. Then it included not only MPs who had voted against the war, but also members of the 2005 intake who had fought for their seats based on their opposition to war. Now, with a new leader who has condemned the Iraq invasion, I hope he will also back it. Regardless of support or for opposition to the no-fly zone, the government must be held to account for its shifting strategy on Libya – it is time to recall parliament.