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Libya

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:10 pm on 16th April 1986.

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Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East 9:10 pm, 16th April 1986

The House and the Foreign Secretary's colleagues will want to reflect on this important personal statement by the Foreign Secretary, and I shall require injury time for the time he took to read his carefully prepared draft to the House. He has answered the second question. Presumably the Defence Secretary did not know either. Yet Mr. Larry Speakes told the American press the other day that last week the President asked his staff, "Shall we make it Monday night?" and they replied, "Yes." If the Foreign Secretary was not deceiving his colleagues, President Reagan was deceiving the British Government.

We all want to understand a little better how much the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary were involved in this affair. Most surprising to me, apparently they were not present at the meeting between General Walters and the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister told us yesterday—and this is a matter for a connoisseur of "Yes Minister"—when asked whether they were privy to a decision she replied, we have acted together in knowledge of one another's views". We always assume that the Prime Minister knows her colleagues' views and we usually assume that she ignores them. The Prime Minister also told us yesterday without explaining the meaning of her words: the Overseas and Defence Committee of the Cabinet met on Monday morning."—[Official Report, 15 April 1986; Vol. 95, c. 731.] She did not tell us whether the Committee was told, apparently not, or what its members discussed. Perhaps they just sat admiring another of the manic monologues from the Prime Minister that always shed about as much light on the issue as an electric grill. The House and the country rely for knowledge about the degree of Cabinet involvement in these matters on a stream of information from the team at No. 10 that gave us the Westland drama, a mixture of ambiguities and disingenuities which the world is still trying to disentangle.

It is clear that the Prime Minister decided to offer the F111s after her meeting with General Walters. We now need to know why on earth she did that. She had no obligation to do it. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup told us that in similar circumstances he refused such facilities in 1973. In view of what has been written in the press in the last day or two, can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the requirement of the United States to get British consent for the use of these bases gives Her Majesty's Government a veto? A positive answer to that would reassure many of us. If he is unable to answer the question directly in the affirmative, we shall want to pursue much further the details of the regime that covers these bases.

The Prime Minister said that she offered the F111 aircraft on the grounds that they were essential to reduce civilian casualties and to save service lives. But as far as we know, the only civilian casualties caused in the Libyan bombings were those caused by the F111 aircraft, and the only aircraft that was lost was an F111. Therefore, that argument does not stand up to even the most cursory examination.

I suspect, as do many others, that there was one reason only why President Reagan sought the Prime Minister's support. It was not military—it was political. He wanted to have at least one companion in crime, and when Mr. Speakes was asked that specific question twice at a press conference two days ago, he refused to answer.

The Prime Minister, thank goodness, today moved away from the "inconceivable to refuse" statement that she made several times yesterday to the original draft that her civil servants prepared for her, which indicates that the next time that President Reagan wants to have a go—as he has told us he will—she will want to consult him again. But how do we know that next time, as always in the past, when President Reagan says, "Jump", she will not reply, "How high?".

All of us on both sides of the House must be deeply concerned that the Cabinet does not seem to have been involved in these decisions. Even the Foreign and Defence Secretaries, who made their views known in public before the bombings took place, do not deem to have pressed their very sensible views. Faced by the impenetrable complacency with which the Prime Minister armours her invincible ignorance, they decided not to molest her with the facts. Many of us hoped that after the unedifying disasters that the Prime Minister underwent in the early months of this year she might have learned something about the need to consult her colleagues. To be honest, we saw some signs in the ensuing weeks of Ministers, who had been imprisoned in the dungeons of Cabinet for many years, emerge blinking into the sunlight chanting the hymn to freedom from Fidelio.

Now, all this new Cabinet discussion appears to amount to a ritual and dreary debate every Thursday, at which obscure Ministers are compelled to volunteer views about issues on which they know and care nothing, while the real problems facing the country are still decided by the Prime Minister—and, I suspect, a tiny team of civil servants—at No. 10.

That just is not good enough for a British Government who must take serious decisions. The decision that the Prime Minister took last week will increase terrorism throughout the middle east. It has already split Britain from the rest of Europe, the rest of the Commonwealth and all members of the United Nations except the United States and Israel. She has thrown away her chance to use Britain's influence for good in seeking a middle east peace settlement, and she has exposed our own people—as she admitted this afternoon—to new and very unwelcome dangers.

For all these reasons, I ask the House to vote against the Adjournment motion.