UK Politics

David Cameron's fear for Britons in Libya

David Cameron may be spending his days shaking hands and signing deals as his "defence and democracy" tour hurtles around the Gulf but increasingly his every spare moment is spent focused on events in Tripoli and Benghazi.

He has had a long time on the phone talking to both William Hague and Liam Fox, making sure that the government is, as he says it is, doing everything it can to get the remaining British nationals out of Libya.

Talking to officials and others travelling with the prime minister and you come away with a sense of just how worried they are. The unspoken fear - and you are cut short if you raise it - is that hostages may be taken.

Who can forget that searing sight of a little English boy sitting embarrassed and confused on the lap of Saddam Hussein shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait?

This is why Mr Cameron has tempered his words when he talks of Libya, erring on the side of caution for fear of inflaming the situation.

Whenever we have asked him about Libya, he has of course condemned the violence. But he has also added that it is open to Col Muammar Gaddafi to end the repression.

In other words, he offers an exit strategy.

Image caption Mr Cameron has been in Qatar but much of his attention has been on Libya

Nor has he gone down the same route as President Nicolas Sarkozy in calling for more EU sanctions. And he does so not just because sanctions are pointless in this situation. If they work, they change behaviour over the long term, they don't stop shooting on the streets today.

But Mr Cameron also holds back on pushing the sanctions button because he does not wish to make the situation worse by allowing his rhetoric to endanger lives. "This could get very messy," one diplomat said.

Mr Cameron's limit was to call for a formal UN resolution condemning Libya. But he can say that safe in the knowledge that it is not a realistic runner. The Russians and the Chinese would never wear it.

So how, in these extraordinary circumstances, can the government put pressure on Gaddafi?

The answer is not clear. Officials point at the Libyan leader's televised address and ask if that is someone who is amenable to normal diplomatic enticements. Offered the suggestion that perhaps Tony Blair could hold some sway over his old ally in the war on terror, and the same diplomatic shoulders are shrugged.

So for now, British policy is clear. The first priority is to get British nationals out of Libya and do and say nothing that could make that task harder.

As for what happens next, well my sense is that once the planes and ships are home and everyone is accounted for, then David Cameron is prepared to step up another diplomatic gear or two. But we are not there yet.

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