UK Politics

Landale Online: Cameron cautious over Libya outcome

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Media captionDavid Cameron: ''The Libyan people deserve to shape their own future''

This is not David Cameron's Falklands moment.

The prime minister has not echoed his predecessor and told reporters to rejoice at the news coming out of Tripoli. There have been no V-for-victory signs or West Wing-style high fives in the corridors of Downing Street.

The Ministry of Defence has not loaned Mr Cameron a camouflage jumpsuit so he can emerge triumphant from a helicopter onto the deck of HMS Ocean to declare mission accomplished.

The tone, instead, has been cautious.

Practical matters

There can be no complacency, Mr Cameron said in his statement outside Downing Street. There will be difficult days ahead. No transition is smooth or easy.

His deputy, Nick Clegg, added in sub-Churchillian tones, that this was not the end but the beginning. The challenges ahead should not be underestimated, he said.

The focus of the government has been on the practical matters of the next few days.

Discussions at the National Security Council meeting on Monday centred on how to react if Col Gaddafi turns up alive in Libya or elsewhere; the diplomacy of a new United Nations Security Council resolution to unfreeze Libyan financial assets that will be needed to pay the wages of government employees; the delivery of aid to areas where it is needed; the logistics of moving British diplomats from Benghazi to Tripoli as quickly and as safely as possible; and the conversations that need to be had with the Libyan National Transitional Council and others.

There was, for once, no need to discuss the latest lists of targets for Nato bombers.

Sense of satisfaction

And yet across government, ministers and officials have not been able to disguise at the very least a sense of satisfaction.

David Cameron's decision six months ago to press for a UN resolution backing military action in Libya was not without risk. So this is one of those rare moments when a specific foreign policy decision has born a very explicit fruit and there was no way Mr Cameron was going to miss the harvest.

The prime minister could have made his calls from Cornwall and summoned the cameras to the seaside to say his piece.

But instead he chose to break into his holiday and travel overnight to London so he could stand outside Downing Street and declare: "This has not been our revolution, but we can be proud that we have played our part."

It had been "a difficult decision", he said, to commit military forces six months ago, but it was "necessary, legal and right".

In other words, he and the government took a chance and it is paying off.

Risks ahead

To all those - including many Tory MPs - who doubted him, who feared mission creep, who predicted stalemate, who said that bombing from the air would not work, who doubted the foreign policy credentials of an inexperienced prime minister, who feared he was bent on a Tony Blair-style intervention overseas that could cost British lives, Mr Cameron was making clear that he had been right and they had been wrong.

And for a coalition struggling with the economy and riots, Libya is - for now at least - a firm positive tick in the box marked "job done". It is also a positive tick in the box marked "policies that unite the coalition parties".

The political risk is that the success is shortlived.

For all the government's confidence in the National Transitional Council, forces are being unleashed in Libya that could prove difficult to control.

The fear, one minister told me, is of a chaotic political vacuum where transitional plans are not implemented, where opposition forces divide and bloody revenge is wrought. Hence the caution alongside the optimism.