I just did a short interview on Five Live on the fall-out (literally in the case of relations between Britain and Italy) from the failed attempt to rescue two hostages in Nigeria. I was preceded by an Italian politician who was venting her spleen at David Cameron’s failure to consult his Italian opposite number until the operation was already under way, and I found myself in the unusual position of defending the Prime Minister.
As the UK PM, his prime concern would have been the safety of Chris McManus and the safety of the UK troops involved in the rescue operation. That is not to say he will not have cared about Nigerian troops, or Italian hostage Franco Lamolinara, simply that the Brits involved would have been front of mind, he would have seen the hostages as a pair, and in applying careful judgement in relation to Mr McManus, he will thus have discharged his duty in relation toMr Lamolinara too. That may sound harsh, but it’s not.
Had he had time to cover off all the diplomatic bases, including the Italian Prime Minister, I suspect he would have done so. But I would not be surprised if the military were urging the circle of knowledge about this to be kept as tight as possible. My fellow Five Live interviewee, Senator Emma Bonino, said it does not take long to make a phone call. Well, for most phone calls that is true. But it is not always possible immediately to connect with other leaders, and what’s more you can never be sure just how many people are listening in, and what they do – including innocently – with the information they hear.
Had the mission been successful, I doubt there would be the fuss there is, with the Italian president also complaining about what happened or rather, what didn’t happen. But in defence of Mr Cameron, he was probably put in a position where he had to make a difficult decision quickly. He would have been aware of the chances of failure, and of death resulting. That is why no matter what anyone may think of him – and I am not incapable of thinking bad things of him myself – I do not believe for one second he would have acted in anything other than a genuine belief that it was possible to rescue the two men, that there were considerable risks, but they were worth taking.
I remember once leaving Tony Blair in his sitting room, shortly after he had authorised a special forces operation, as I prepared to head home. As I reached the door, I looked back and Tony was sitting there, clearly thinking he was alone now, and he was a picture of loneliness and worry. Ultimately there are some decisions only the PM can take. Yesterday David Cameron had to take one. Things did not turn out as planned. Two hostages are dead. Some Italian politicians are upset.
But I don’t think any the worse of Cameron either for the decision he took, or the failure to tell Mario Monti.