The war against Gaddafi: it’s costing us a bomb

The Mole: On Budget day, rising cost of maintaining pressure on Gaddafi is the elephant in the chamber

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:01 ON Wed 23 Mar 2011

As George Osborne unveils today's austerity Budget, doling out a few tax handouts, the cost of the offensive against Col Gaddafi is beginning to exercise the minds of even the most gung-ho Tories.

They are alarmed at the naivety of Nick Harvey, the Lib Dems' armed forces minister, who admitted that the military adventure could continue indefinitely. Asked how long would Britain's commitment to the Libyan rebels continue, Harvey - in a phrase he will come to regret - responded: "How long is a piece of string?"

The Daily Telegraph has calculated that patrolling the no-fly zone is costing Britain about £3.2 million a day, before a weapon is fired. At that rate, the no-fly zone has cost British taxpayers £17 million so far.

The opening of the assault with 112 Tomahawk missiles which thudded into targets at the weekend, each costing around £500,000, burned up another £56 million. Barack Obama, the US president, may have paid the bulk of the bill, but some were fired from British ships and submarines.

The Americans are also starting to tot up the cost. It is estimated that the three-month operation in Kosovo in 1999 cost the United States $1.9 billion or $2.4 billion in today's money. Imposing the no-fly zone over Iraq for over a decade before the 2003 invasion cost the US an estimated £1.3bn a year.

Britain's share of the current bill may seem miniscule set against the US contribution, or against the overall deficit facing our country. But when taxpayers are being asked to endure years of relative hardship, they need to be convinced that the Libyan exercise is worth it.

The Mayor of London Boris Johnson, though a sceptic about the war on Libya, has hinted that if we don't sort out Gaddafi, the Libyan tyrant could finance more terrorist attacks in London.

That might convince some. But why should British taxpayers pick up the tab for Libya at all? The oil-rich members of the Arab League, on whose behalf the action is supposed to be taking place, contribute nothing to Britain's defence bill. Indeed, the oil states of the Gulf region are gaining from the rising cost of oil caused by the instability in the Middle East.

The disclosures in The First Post that the rebels are mainly a rival tribal grouping, who have been against Gaddafi since his military coup, will intensify the questions being asked by Cameron's own supporters who loyally trooped through the 'Aye' lobby in favour of the war on Monday.

The Budget will now be debated for days. Osborne will be praised for his genius in finding a few tax handouts in a difficult year. But the cost of the war in Libya will be the elephant in the chamber.

It is no wonder that Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, keeps repeating the entirely unsubstantiated rumour that Gaddafi is looking for a safe haven among his international friends, who include Silvio Berlusconi and Tony Blair. A nice villa in Tuscany? A retirement home in Bournemouth?

Clinton may be guilty of wishful thinking, but it is easy to see why. ·