UK Politics

Libya: Tory MP David Davis urges UK defence rethink

Rebel fighters flee in cars after a tank shell explodes in Ajdabiyah
Image caption The aim of a no-fly zone is to stop air attacks on Libyans by Gaddafi forces

Defence cuts have left the UK "unable to act" swiftly in Libya and should be revisited, says a senior Tory MP.

David Davis said there was a "moral case" to act, if necessary without a UN resolution, but "we don't really have the hardware to do the job".

"I would have liked us to be in a position to have taken our own stand - we can't do that," he told the BBC.

The government says the UK could use its military base in Cyprus to help enforce any no-fly zone.

Alternatively, it could use a Nato base in southern italy, or ask permission to use a base in Malta.

Still sceptical

The UK and France are trying to get the UN Security Council to agree to a draft resolution authorising an air exclusion zone across Libya.

The US has said it would support the move and suggested further action may be needed to stop attacks by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime on civilians.

A No 10 spokesman said Prime Minister David Cameron was "closely engaged" in the UN process and had spoken to a number of Arab leaders as negotiations on the resolution continue. But China and Russia are among countries still sceptical about a no-fly zone.

Mr Davis, a former shadow home secretary and Tory leadership contender, told the BBC a UN resolution may come too late to prevent Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi crushing the rebellion.

"People are being killed and if Gaddafi succeeds then many many many innocent people will be murdered by him - we've already seen this in Tripoli and it will happen in Benghazi if he succeeds."

He added that the Arab League was "massively in favour of a no-fly zone" and, pointing to a New York Times interview with former US Air Force chief General Merrill McPeak, said it was "easily do-able" and did not have to involve bombing surface-to-air missiles.

He said it was a "fiction" that to be legal, you had to go through the UN: "What that means is we have to get the permission of the Chinese and Russians which may not be forthcoming - the truth is there is a pre-eminent moral case here."

But he said the longer the international community waited, the more they would have to do - and a "no travel zone" would probably be needed to stop Col Gaddafi moving heavy arms around Libya.

He added: "I think we should act, the trouble is we really don't have the hardware to do the job."

He told the BBC many Conservatives were concerned about defence cuts announced last October - which included decommissioning the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the UK's fleet of Harrier jets and it was "time to go back and look at it again".

"If we had Ark Royal, if we had the Harriers, we could almost certainly have prevented any flight by Gaddafi's people over the rebels... and where he's got his air defences. We could have done that, probably straight away."

"There's a terrible deja vu about this. The same thing happened with John Nott's defence review in the 80s, when Galtieri invaded the Falklands we had already sold one of our aircraft carriers to the Australians. "

"Fortunately it hadn't gone and we could use it - if he had waited a couple of years, we would have been in the same position we are with Libya today - unable to act."

'Blair-esque behaviour'

BBC Radio 4's chief political correspondent Norman Smith said the Conservatives were split over what to do in Libya - with some privately accusing Mr Cameron of "Blair-esque behaviour".

He said that if the UN resolution was passed, critics would unite behind the PM - but one senior Tory said if Britain decided to go it alone there "could be trouble". MPs expect they would be given a vote to authorise action, but no specific commitment has been made.

The Ministry of Defence has said the UK could use its military base in Cyprus, or those of its allies, to help enforce any no-fly zone.

It has resisted calls from Labour and some former military chiefs to revisit the defence review, saying the "adaptive" strategy it set out in the autumn is suitable for a world where future threats will be unpredictable and - despite annual cuts of 8% - the defence budget will still be the world's fourth highest.

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