Parliament watch: Why does the PM stay in London so often?

Published October 30, 2015
What bothered many of his countrymen was why PM Nawaz makes it a point to break his journey frequently in London on visits to Western countries, and invariably when his destination lies across the Atlantic? —AP/File
What bothered many of his countrymen was why PM Nawaz makes it a point to break his journey frequently in London on visits to Western countries, and invariably when his destination lies across the Atlantic? —AP/File

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s foreign visits are thoroughly analyzed at home by experts for their achievements - and indeed overanalyzed by the media. His back-to-back visits to the United States in September and October excited rather merciless analysis because they were meant to present Pakistan’s core policies and interests to the UN General Assembly and to the US President, Barack Obama.

PM Sharif left Islamabad on October 19 and reached Washington the next day after an overnight stay in London for his meetings with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Finished with what his aides and admirers applauded as “a highly successful meeting with the US President” on October 23, PM Sharif headed home and spent three nights in London on the way back. An unusual hush covered his stay.

It was broken only by the October 26 earthquake that shook his homeland, when he rushed back to Islamabad.

What bothered many of his countrymen was why he makes it a point to break his journey frequently in London on visits to Western countries, and invariably when his destination lies across the Atlantic? That his son lives in London and he would like to spend a few nights at his Park Lane residence near Hyde Park was not reason enough for doubters.

His chief spokesperson, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid, however had more potent reasons to offer when approached to learn about the prime minister’s hushed up engagements in the home city of parliamentary democracy.

“PM Sharif always travels in a small plane which has limited flying time - maximum eight hours of flight,” he explained. “So, every time his itinerary involves crossing the Atlantic Ocean, he divides his travel in two parts.”

“Indeed, by using a small plane with limited flying time, the prime minister is taking a risk. But he opts for it because taking a big one would cost [the national exchequer] more, which our government always avoids,” asserted the minister.

That may be so.

But the minister sidestepped questions about these mysterious engagements when he was reminded that airport authorities require a six-hour notice for refueling and the preparation of a small plane for flight.

Foreign office spokesperson Qazi M. Khalilullah wouldn’t respond to messages asking about the PM’s three-night stopover in London.

One of his colleagues, however, shared his “first hand (though not exactly parallel) experiences” at the Pakistan High Commission in London, on the condition of anonymity.

According to him, former PPP PM Yousuf Raza Gilani once wanted to spend “a couple of extra nights” in London outside his officially planned itinerary.

“Faced with the indecorous situation,” he said, “we activated the relevant diplomatic means, informing the host government about the PM’s wish. But we got a pithy response.”

The UK government bluntly stated that it will not spend a single penny on PM Gilani’s extended private stay in London. However, he will be provided two outriders to escort him to his intended place of residence and that his flight will be accorded VIP status. But the Pakistan High Commission will have to pick up the bill for the plane’s parking at the airport and other expenditures related to his extended stay. 

A top government official of the incumbent set up told Dawn that PM Sharif’s recent stays in London were “very much private and had nothing to do with the UK authorities.”

However, he accepted that the government will pay his plane’s extra parking fee etc. “Otherwise, PM Sharif used his personal vehicles and residence during his stay in London,” he said.

A ruling PML-N office bearer approached for comments shot back: “What’s wrong with our PM staying a few days with his family in London?”

But the prime minister’s detractors allege that he spends three days a week at his home in Lahore.

“Isn’t that enough time to spend with the family for a prime minister of Pakistan who surely carries the burden of decade’s worth of misgovernance and bad policies?” wondered one.

Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2015

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