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Nicholas Leonard: Problems for UK at home and abroad over Libya

'There will be no immunity from prosecution. He has not asked for that. There isn't a deal," said the British foreign secretary, William Hague, yesterday as he tried to explain the government's attitude towards the dramatic defection of the Libyan foreign minister, Moussa Koussa.

"He chose to come to the UK of his own free will," claimed Hague, adding it was "a good thing that he has left this despotic, murderous regime, because it weakens that regime".

Many MPs believe that Koussa played a key role for three decades in both the despotism and the murder, and they will get a chance to cross-question Hague about what exactly is going on behind the scenes when he makes a statement on the Libyan crisis in the Commons today.

The chances are they will not learn much. Hague will say that decisions on criminal prosecution are a matter for the police and the judiciary and he will try to reassure voters that Libya is not going to become "another Iraq" or "another Afghanistan".

He and the prime minister, David Cameron, in fact, are hopeful that lack of money from oil sales will soon bring down Gaddafi, especially if more of his key aides decide to flee.

Some MPs agree with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who argued yesterday for giving Gaddafi a safe haven route out of Tripoli: "It's quite clear that in the best of worlds it would be a good thing for us to say you clobber him, capture him and let him stand for trial. But what is the lesser of two evils? To let him have a soft landing and save the lives of as many people as you possibly can."

Cameron is trying to avoid promoting that kind of realpolitik approach in public but, since Koussa was frequently on the phone to Hague in the past few weeks from inside Tripoli, it is hard to believe that he was not given some kind of 'mind you I've said nothing' reassurances about how he would be treated.

Whether those promises will be honoured once the Gaddafi regime has disappeared is, of course, another matter. There are plenty of cynics at Westminster who believe that Koussa will be mollycoddled to encourage others and then put in the hands of either international or domestic Libyan justice.

The authorities in Scotland hope to interview him as early as today to try to find out more about the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 but 'sources' have been hinting that he is not personally at risk of being accused of a role in it.

The revelation of the frequent contacts between Koussa and Hague in recent weeks is a vivid pointer to the way in which the careers of some of the most important political figures in the UK and Libya have become intertwined in recent years.

The information minister, Moussa Ibrahim, who has been defending Gaddafi with lethal fluency at the regime's frequent press conferences, is another classic example.

Ibrahim has been living in England for the past 15 years. He studied politics at Exeter University and recently finished a thesis on media arts at a London college. He has not yet been granted his postgraduate degree for this because his supervisors wanted him to make some amendments.

While MPs fret about the morality of the government's involvement in Libya, senior military figures are more anxious about the implications for the UK's defences.

Jock Stirrup, who used to be head of the armed forces, told the Lords last week that the country is spreading its military resources "very thin" and a crisis involving a country such as Iran could have "severe consequences".

The massacre of UN staff in Afghanistan has underpinned concerns among MPs about the timetable for handing over control to the Kabul government.

Against this background, questions to Hague and Cameron about why the UK is not promoting external intervention to protect civilians in countries such as Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and the Ivory Coast seem laughably academic.

The enthusiasm for spreading Westminster-style parliamentary democracy across the Middle East via the so-called Arab Spring coincides with a tense argument over what kind of democratic system should be used in the UK itself in the future.

The referendum on May 5 on whether to switch from 'first past the post' to the 'alternative vote' system for electing MPs is creating intense strains within the coalition. For the first time since the vote on whether to stay in the EU back in 1975, ministers are being allowed to make their own decisions rather than being forced to toe the party line.

As a result, David Cameron finds himself pitted against his Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg, whose political career may well be destroyed if the switch to the new system is rejected next month. The toughest challenge for both of them is to persuade people to go to the polling stations. Canvassers say that there is massive ignorance and apathy among voters.

Irish Independent