The PMS started by saying that Cabinet had discussed Libya this morning. There was a broad discussion on the range of activity across government; the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary both gave updates. The Chancellor spoke about what was happening in terms of freezing assets, as well as the bank notes issue, and the International Development Secretary spoke about our efforts in providing humanitarian aid.
Speaking on Libya more generally the PMS said that the situation remained as was set out by the Prime Minister yesterday in the House of Commons. There remained a small number of UK nationals in Libya who wanted to leave and we were doing what we could to facilitate their departure. On the international processes, the Prime Minister spoke to President Sarkozy last night. They agreed that British and French experts should work together on policy options, and that there should be an early European Council to discuss further EU measures to put pressure on the regime. The UN General Assembly meeting was convening today to follow up on the Human Rights Council (HRC) yesterday. We hoped that that would result in Libya’s suspension from the HRC, which would be an unprecedented and important step in the process the Prime Minister had been talking about yesterday in terms of isolating the Libyan regime as a way of bringing pressure to bear. We were also speaking to other international organisations such as the African Union and the Arab League to further isolate Libya. The Arab League had now suspended Libya.
On the humanitarian front the Department for International Development (DfID) had dispatched some teams to the Egyptian and Tunisian borders. At the moment the Tunisian border was of greater concern, and today we would be flying in tents and blankets from Dubai to Tunisia in response to a request from the HCR.
Asked if the UK and France were taking the lead in terms of the European response to the crisis in Libya, the PMS said that we were keen to work together with other member states to support further EU action.
Asked if it was government policy that there needed to be a UN Security Resolution in order to implement a no-fly zone, the PMS said that all these things were being looked at and we would not speculate on things further. The Prime Minister said yesterday that we would look at the option of a no-fly zone as a contingency measure. This is not a step we would take unless things changed on the ground. Our policy now was to isolate and bring pressure to bear on the regime through international diplomatic efforts and sanctions. We were also undertaking a broad range of contingency work because things were changing and we needed to be ready for all eventualities.
Asked about the cost of the UK’s involvement, the PMS said that any no-fly zone would involve some international effort. It was premature to talk about costs for particular countries.
Asked what kind of military assets could be used, the PMS said that there was diplomatic work going on. We were doing a lot internationally through the UN and other international bodies, which was the focus of our work at the moment. We were also stepping up our work on the humanitarian side. When it came to military issues planning was under way, but no more than that. COBRA was meeting daily at the moment with the focus on immediate issues in Libya. The National Security Council (NSC) had met on Friday and yesterday, and would be meeting again today. The NSC was concerned with the broader issues affecting the region.
Asked if the Defence Secretary had stood up at Cabinet and explained how we could go about doing things, the PMS said no; it was Cabinet’s first discussion on recent events, primarily dealing with the immediate issues in Libya.
Asked if there had been reflection at Cabinet events last week, the PMS said that the Foreign Secretary briefed colleagues on events last week.
Asked if the situation would have to substantially change on the ground in order for a no-fly zone to be considered, the PMS said that we were at the contingency planning stage and no more than that. There were certain sets of circumstances in which a no-fly zone would be appropriate, but we were not at that stage.
Asked if the Attorney General gave legal advice at Cabinet, the PMS said no; we were contingency planning.
Asked how serious the situation was in Tunisia, the PMS said that there was not a great deal of detail to report - this was an area where things were developing rapidly. We had sent teams in, which would give us further insight into what was happening on the ground. The humanitarian situation was worsening.
Put that the American’s had described Gaddafi’s appearance on a televised interview as delusional and asked what the Prime Minister thought, the PMS said that the American reaction was a reasonable assessment of Gaddafi’s interview.
Asked if the Prime Minister was confident that the UK had the military capability to take part in a no-fly zone, the PMS said that we were currently contingency planning, and one aspect of that was to look at what our role could be and what assets we had in place.
Asked what the government’s policy was in terms of Gaddafi’s position, the PMS said that the Prime Minister had made clear yesterday that Gaddafi had to go.
Asked if the Prime Minister would be speaking to opposition groups in Libya, the PMS said that it would be part of the government’s approach. We intended to bring pressure on the current regime and seek to engage with opposition parties where possible.
Asked if it was time to look again at the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in terms of not having the military capacity necessary for situations like this, the PMS said that the SDSR was looking at 2020 and planning for the future. Decisions we were taking now were about making sure we had the right sort of armed forces for the future. We were left with a black hole at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and we had to get to grips with that. The cuts in the MoD budget were actually much smaller than cuts across many other budgets, and the plans we had put on place reflected a proper assessment of what we thought we would need in the future.