The revelations in the FT and elsewhere that MI6 appeared to have a close working relationship with the Gaddafi secret services is providing something of a dilemma for the current government.
One one hand, this is an open goal for the coalition to plunge the knife into Labour: to accuse them of collusion with the Gaddafi regime in torturing Libyan dissidents. And there are signs that Tory MPs are doing just that.
Patrick Mercer, the former chairman of the House of Commons subcommittee on counter-terrorism, said over the weekend:
This document seems to indicate that our intelligence services were getting unhealthily close to practices that the British government at the time and its successors rightly condemn.
I trust that the Foreign Secretary will look into this, despite the fact that it did not happen on his watch.
William Hague picked up on the theme, saying the allegations “relate to a period under the previous government, so I have no knowledge of those”.
David Cameron’s suggestion that the Gibson inquiry into British involvement in treatment of terrorism suspects abroad could look at the case of Abdul Hakim Belhadj looks like it may inflict further damage on Labour.
But Cameron is also treading a tightrope, and is keen not to upset MI6 nor to set his own government standards of international behaviour they might not keep in future. That’s why when his spokesman announced the move this morning, he effectively gave the Labour rebuttal at the same time:
Clearly to protect British citizens we have to work with governments around the world. Some of those governments don’t share our standards.
But we have to do what’s necessary to fight against terrorism and to protect our citizens.
On one level, the PM does not want to appear soft on suspected terrorists. But more pragmatically, he knows that if he starts moralising now about such behaviour, there is a chance his own government could get caught in a similarly compromising situation.
As Boris Johnson writes in today’s Telegraph: “It may all sound reprehensible, but I am afraid it’s called politics.”
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