Britain deploys navy as ash clouds vote race

19th April 2010, Comments 0 comments

Prime Minister Gordon Brown sent in the navy Monday to rescue British passengers stranded by the volcanic ash cloud, as the crisis added an unexpected twist to campaigning for May 6 elections.

Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron also sought to claim credit for the idea, which comes after the election race was thrown wide open by a surge in support for the third party, the Liberal Democrats.

Brown, whose poll ratings have been helped by previous crises, recalled ministers from the campaign trail Sunday for urgent talks on how to repatriate some 150,000 Britons stuck abroad after the ash grounded flights across Europe.

After fresh talks Monday, the prime minister announced that the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean were being deployed to the English Channel to help those stranded return home.

A third ship, HMS Albion, was on its way to Spain to pick up British troops who had been diverted on their way home from the war in Afghanistan, Brown said, adding that it may be able to pick up some civilians.

"This is the biggest challenge to our aviation transport network for many years," he said, adding he had spoken to Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to discuss using Spain -- not under the ash cloud -- as an air transport hub to help Britons stranded outside Europe get home.

Britain was one of the first countries to close its airspace following the eruption Wednesday of the Eyjafjoell volcano in Iceland, which has sent a cloud of ash across Europe.

As an island, Britain has been particularly hit by the resulting chaos and the plight of the stranded Britons has captured the public's imagination.

Several newspapers Monday compared the planned naval rescue to the 1940 evacuation of thousands of Allied soldiers from the beaches of northern France when they were cut off by the German army during World War II.

The crisis has occurred in the midst of the closest British election campaign in decades, and although politicians have tried to present a united front, the Labour government's response could make or break its bid for re-election.

Brown briefed leaders of the opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties on events at the weekend, and both publicly pledged their support for the government's naval plan Monday.

"The government has got to do everything it can in order to help, so I welcome this announcement," said Conservative leader Cameron -- although he insisted on taking some of the credit for the idea.

"The idea of using the Royal Navy was actually something the Conservative Party very constructively suggested and I am delighted the government has taken it up," he said.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who experienced a boost in polls following a much-praised performance in a leaders' television debate on Thursday, also supported the government's approach.

His three young sons are among those stranded in Spain, where they had been visiting his Spanish in-laws.

"I fully support what the government's doing," Clegg told the BBC, adding: "I don't think this is a situation where politicians should start scoring points off each other."

He and Cameron have reason to be worried, however, as Brown has in the past benefited from crises, when his oft-criticised seriousness is seen as an asset.

Shortly after he succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister in June 2007, Brown's handling of foiled car bombings, floods and a major foot-and-mouth disease outbreak was credited with a surge in his poll ratings.

This collapsed within months after he cancelled widely anticipated snap elections, and Labour has trailed the Conservatives ever since.

© 2010 AFP

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