Gaddafi Jr.'s Shooting Party

Britain exploded this week with revelations that a top Labour minister and Cherie Blair went pheasant shooting with the Libyan dictator’s son. Venetia Thompson on the latest fallout from the al-Megrahi scandal.

As President Obama pardoned a turkey and sent it off to live happily ever after, other less fortunate birds were beginning to hit headlines here in Britain.

Just when it seemed that the British government’s relations with Libya couldn’t possibly get any messier, Charles Moore at The Spectator has revealed details of a recent pheasant shooting party at Waddeson Manor, Lord Rothschild’s huge country house in Buckinghamshire: the guest list included Cherie Blair, wife of former Prime Minister Tony; Lord Mandelson, our Business Secretary—and the unofficial deputy Prime Minister (apparently neither of whom picked up a gun—God forbid); and Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan dictator. Saif, a keen shot, has apparently laid down 40,000 partridges near Tripoli, but is perhaps best known for being the man who escorted al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, back to Libya in August this year after his early release.

“It could be argued that the Gaddafis are better occupied shooting pheasants than blowing up airliners.”

Of course, Saif Gaddafi and Mandelson have a long history of holidaying together—most recently, you may recall, it was this same pair who met up at the Rothschild villa in Corfu, a week before the announcement of the controversial decision to release al-Megrahi in what can only be described as the “al-Megrahi for oil” scandal, when Britain decided it had better hop into bed with Libya to avoid being on the receiving end of the sort of “we’ll cut you off” threats made towards Switzerland.

Ironically, the three-month “anniversary” of al Megrahi’s triumphant return to Libya passed a few days ago. He was of course supposed to have been dead by now – as per the conditions of his early release on compassionate grounds—but allegations have since emerged that the doctors who gave him three months to live (strangely the exact amount of time needed by Scottish law to implement a release) were paid off.

Since releasing al-Megrahi, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, already reeling from dismal approval ratings and a weak government, has shown nothing but mixed signals. Most recently, he half-heartedly attempted to buy back a bit of Britain’s soul. He called in September for a new “get-tough” policy on Libya (having previously vetoed an attempt to force Gaddafi to compensate IRA bomb victims in case it jeopardised British oil deals with Libya) whereby Britain would push Libya to pay compensation to victims of IRA attacks, which were supported and aided by Colonel Gaddafi’s government in the 1980s. But when his deputy continues to fraternize with the enemy so defiantly—it only confirms that Brown is firmly Libya’s lapdog and his words on the subject nothing but empty rhetoric which Libya will duly continue to ignore—after all, there are of course more pressing matters at hand, such as high society pheasant shooting parties.

Perhaps more shocking than any of the horrifying details that emerged after al Megrahi’s release, is that Saif Gaddafi is seemingly fully ensconced within the upper echelons of the British social scene. As Charles Moore aptly concludes, “it could be argued that the Gaddafis are better occupied shooting pheasants than blowing up airliners. It could also be argued that it is unusual for our deputy prime minister to be rubbing shoulders with a member of the family responsible for the biggest terrorist atrocity ever committed against British citizens.”

The Conservatives issued a statement echoing Moore that evening, “this extraordinary revelation, if true, raises serious questions for Peter Mandelson. Once again, he is mixing up his private associations and his public duties. For years, he has been at the centre of Britain’s relationship with Libya. People will question why the first secretary thinks it appropriate to enjoy country house weekends with the man who escorted Al Megrahi home to a hero’s welcome in Libya.”

Within a few hours of The Spectator publishing details of the jolly gathering, a spokesman for Mandelson released a typically cryptic statement denying all knowledge, “we do not offer a running commentary on Peter Mandelson’s social engagements, but we can confirm that he has never taken part in a pheasant shoot and never will. He has always said he is happy to see Saif Gaddafi again if the occasion arose.”

This of course neatly avoids the issue entirely. Charles Moore never said that Mandelson “took part” in a pheasant shoot—and indeed his article states that he, along with Cherie, didn’t pick up guns (unlike Saif who brought his own into the UK), but that they were present at the shooting party. If Mandelson wasn’t going to shoot pheasant, we can only assume that he was going on business—in his capacity as Business Secretary—perhaps trying to get one final deal done before Labour inevitably loses the next election in May 2010? Old habits die hard—although who knows what he is using as a bargaining tool now that we no longer have al Megrahi – perhaps game birds. Someone should perhaps tell him that pheasant no longer gets you very far.

But there is still one guest whose presence is unaccounted for—Cherie Blair. Perhaps she was there as her husband’s second. It was, of course, Tony Blair who famously embraced his old ally Colonel Gaddafi during a meeting in the Libyan desert in 2007, making the statement ‘there is nothing I’ve ever agreed with him that should be done that hasn’t been done… it shows that it is possible to go from a situation where Libya was an outcast from the international community to a situation where our relationship has been transformed’. But perhaps the next time Mandelson finds himself in the company of Saif, he would be wise to remember whom he is dealing with—and rather than looking to the words of Desert Storm Tony, he should heed those of Colonel Gaddafi, “If the US wants seriously to eradicate terrorism, the first capital that should be pounded with cruise missiles is London.”

Diplomatically, we have not come as far from the troubled 80s and 90s as our government would have us believe, and seeing the names Gaddafi, Blair, and Mandelson juxtaposed one last time seems a fittingly sordid end to the Labour era. I only hope that the “mad dog of the Middle East” is eventually brought back to heel, and his son stops shooting birds out of British skies in the meantime.

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Venetia Thompson is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Spectator. Her memoir Gross Misconduct will be published in February by Simon and Schuster UK. She lives in London.