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[casi] from today's papers: 17-07-02



A. Blair survives landmark grilling, Guardian, 17 July
B. A very civil encounter in the Boothroyd Room, Independent, 17 July
C. I want to change style, Blair tells his inquisitors, Telegraph, 17 July
D. Blair warns strike on Iraq may be needed, FT, 17 July
E. Extract from the tanscript of Blair's appearance before the Select
Committee.

Guardian: letters@guardian.co.uk
Independent: letters@independent.co.uk
Telegraph: dtletters@telegraph.co.uk
Financial Times: letters.editor@ft.com

[Letter-writers: remember to include your address and telephone number]

Iraq figures in today's broadsheets in the context of British Prime Minister
Tony Blair's appearance before a Commons Select Committee yesterday. Touted
as an unprecedented 'grilling' it turned out to be a rather lame affair. The
Iraq-related material is reproduced in E. below. Blair claimed that 'it is
clear that Saddam Hussein is still trying to develop weapons of mass
destruction' and that there were 'rough linkages' - whatever that may mean -
between al-Qaida and the Iraqi Government. Blair also said - in a statement
that, predictably, went unchallenged by the Committee - that 'we should act,
as I hope this country always does, in accordance with international law.'

*****************************************
A. Blair survives landmark grilling
PM calls for cross-party consensus on pensions, transport, housing

Michael White, political editor
Wednesday July 17, 2002
The Guardian

Tony Blair yesterday revealed the three policy issues which he expects to
cause his government most long-term "political pain" when he appealed for a
cross-party consensus to tackle the problems of pensions, transport and
housing.

"They are the really tough long-term issues. The political pain in dealing
with them is enormous, whatever government is in power. They are the areas
where it would be worth in some way trying to establish some sort of
consensus," the prime minister confessed the day after Gordon Brown's
comprehensive spending review drew bitter partisan criticism.

In his groundbreaking appearance before a Commons select committee - the
first by an incumbent prime minister since 1937 - Mr Blair also denied
running a presidential regime. But he admitted that the habits of 18 years
in opposition, where "the announcement is the reality", had left Labour with
an over-reliance on spin since 1997.

As part of his new drive to become more candid and more accountable to MPs
and voters he repeatedly acknowledged how difficult it is to get things done
and to fulfil rising expectations. "When you announce extra money for the
health service people turn up at their doctor's surgery next morning and say
'where is it? we want it now'," he said.

Four weeks after his first Downing Street press conference - to be repeated
next Thursday - the prime minister welcomed the exchanges with backbenchers:
"Less combative, more constructive" than Commons questions, he said.

And he appealed to the media to help generate "a better and more developed
debate" on policy, rather than on personalities or "froth", that would
reconnect disaffected voters with politics.

Alone and in shirt-sleeves, Mr Blair spent two-and-a-half hours taking
questions from 25 of the backbench chairmen of the 35 commons select
committees who together make up the liaison committee, the most senior
committee of Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs. Few questions
appeared to unsettle him.

Both sides were on their best behaviour, determined to make a success of an
experiment that Mr Blair had rejected until this spring: direct
accountability for what many MPs now regard as an over-large and costly
"prime minister's department".

The committee will grill him again in January, probably on Europe and public
services. Yesterday they forewarned Number 10 that they would range more
widely. But they did not send him their questions in advance, as they took
it in turns to try to pin him down.

Some MPs present felt it had been "a waste of time". Others were pleased,
and Blair aides later said he had found the exchanges "very intelligent and
very useful".

Centralised power

The prime minister faced sceptical questions from left and right about
public service delivery and the MPs' hunch that too much policy is still
being micro-managed from the centre and not devolved to schools and
hospitals as promised.

Denying that he is "presidential" and ignores his cabinet, Mr Blair had
earlier said that "those prime ministers who have a strong centre are
accused of being dictatorial, those who do not are accused of being weak".

He said: "I am not disputing the fact we have strengthened the centre
considerably but I say that is the right thing to do."

Pensions, transport and housing

Tackled by Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairwoman of the transport committee, about
Lord Birt's plea for roads over public transport, Mr Blair highlighted
transport, pensions and housing as "three areas [where] it would be better
if we were able to have some form of cross-party consensus that would
survive governments in dealing with them".

Aides later admitted this was "an observation, not a new approach", not
least since Labour ripped apart Peter Lilley's Tory pensions initiative
during the 1997 election campaign and would happily do the same to David
Willetts' current plans.

But as with extra housing in the crowded south-east and the need to curb
road-building, he accepted that forcing people to save more for old age is
expensive and politically unpopular.

Iraq

Mr Blair gave the strongest public justification yet for the need to take
pre-emptive action against Iraq.

There were only "various rough linkages" between Saddam Hussein and
al-Qaida, he admitted. But "we knew about al-Qaida for a very long time,
they were committing terrorist acts. We did not act. To be truthful there
was no way we would have got public consent to launch a campaign against
Afghanistan before September 11 ... what we should learn from that is that
if there is a gathering threat or danger, let us deal with it before it
materialises rather than afterwards".

Whitehall special advisers

"The idea that [policy making] is all decided by special advisers - it is
the most important thing we have done as a government - is absurd."

Media

"Today there is often so much focus on the issues of process and
personality, I think there is a danger that sometimes people feel that's all
we as politicians do focus on."

*********************************************************
B. A very civil encounter in the Boothroyd Room
It was an historic event but Tony Blair's appearance before committee
chairmen turned into a bloodless affair
By Nigel Morris Political Correspondent

Independent
17 July 2002

Like all big ticket events, the advance publicity bordered on the
hyperbolic. In an unprecedented and historic clash, the Prime Minister would
face a fierce cross-examination from the most ruthless and persistent
interrogators in the Commons. Westminster was buzzing with anticipation.

But, as things turned out, Tony Blair's appearance before the little-known
Liaison Committee was as low-key as the spartan surroundings of the
Boothroyd Room, where the encounter took place.

The committee  including many veteran backbenchers famed for baring their
fangs in scathing critiques of government policy  turned out to be more
polite and civil than even the Prime Minister himself could have hoped.

The panel confronting a shirt-sleeved Mr Blair comprised the chairmen of 35
Commons select committees, who threw questions at him from the a whole range
of government policies, from Iraq and Ulster to the future of the
parliamentary lobby system and the National Health Service's use of
acupuncture.

At the end of their light grilling, they had not drawn the Prime Minister's
blood; in fact they barely scented it.

The closest they came to a confession of failure came when Mr Blair conceded
his Government had concentrated too much on policy presentation during his
first spell in office and promised to do things differently in future.

Asked whether he had decided to break the convention that Prime Ministers
did not appear before select committee because he wanted to shake off the
Government's reputation for "spin", he virtually admitted the point. He
said: "When you are in opposition for 18 years, as we were, there is a
tendency to believe the announcement is the reality, and in opposition in
many ways it is, as you are never in a position to deliver anything on the
ground.

"For the first period in government there was a tendency to believe the same
situation applied. It isn't. The announcement is only the intention. Doing
it this way, making sure we have more ministerial statements, trying to
reach out, is a way of overcoming what is the perception, I think unfairly,
of news management."

But he stood by plans to bolster Downing Street's influence over the rest of
Whitehall, insisting he made "no apology for having a strong centre". He
said: "If you go back in politics, I think prime ministers fall into two
categories  those that are considered to have a strong centre are accused
of being dictatorial, and those that are not are seen as being weak. You
pays your money, you takes your choice."

Challenged directly by Sir George Young, the former Tory cabinet minister,
on whether he had introduced a presidential style of government, Mr Blair
replied: "I truly believe not. I think that's unfair and wrong."

Mr Blair said his Downing Street staff numbers were matched by those of
Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, and fell far short of the teams working for the
French President or German Chancellor. He said: "I can't believe there is a
single prime minister who hasn't wanted the prime minister's writ to run. I
can't believe there is a prime minister sitting in Downing Street saying,
'Let them just get on with it'."

He dismissed as "absurd" the notion that special advisers played a
significant role in the operation of government but he rejected calls to cut
their number and ruled out suggestions that they should give evidence to
select committees.

"Ministers are accountable and ministers should be held to account," he
said.

Mr Blair denied his televised press conference had been organised last month
as a first step towards diluting the lobby system. He said: "Sometimes you
can't win on this. If you have a press conference you are criticised for
being presidential. If you don't, people say you aren't being open with us."
The Prime Minister also warned that President Saddam Hussein's weapons of
mass destruction programme in Iraq represented "a gathering threat" to which
the world must respond. He argued the terrorist attacks of 11 September
demonstrated that some security threats were so grave that they had to be
tackled pre-emptively.

Mr Blair told Donald Anderson, the Labour chairman of the Foreign Affairs
Select Committee, that there were "various rough linkages" between Iraq and
al-Qa'ida. He said: "What we should learn from that is that if there is a
gathering threat or danger, let us deal with it before it materialises
rather than afterwards. But there is a threat ... the options are open, but
we do have to deal with it."

On the euro, Mr Blair stuck religiously to the well-worn formula over
membership of the European single currency: the decision would be put to a
referendum once the five economic tests had been met.

As the session started, Mr Blair described his appearances at Prime
Ministers Questions as "80 per cent theatre" but there was little compelling
drama yesterday because of an unexpected outbreak of courtesy between
politicians.

Q. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Transport
If special advisers don't make policy, why did you ask Lord Birt and the
forward strategy unit to look at the future of transport?

A. Tony Blair
Because I think it's a good idea to have lots of people who can give you
interesting insights and ideas.

Q. Donald Anderson, Foreign Affairs
President Clinton was for the containment of Iraq. President Bush talks of
regime change. Has our policy in the UK evolved in just the same way?

A. Tony Blair
There are no decisions made in relation to Iraq at all, but there is no
doubt that Iraq poses a threat  and this is an issue that has to be dealt
with.

Q. Tony Wright, Public Administration
Does the fact you have come here mark a completely new style of government?

A. Tony Blair
I suppose ... it might seem like something of a Damascene conversion to
appear in front of a select committee. I think really it is as a result of
my desire to try and engage in the political debate in a different way.

Q. Chris Mullin, Home Affairs
Do you remember the last election? Presumably you had a sneaking feeling
that you might win?

A. Tony Blair
It was possible. It was always possible, yeah.

*******************************************************
C. I want to change style, Blair tells his inquisitors
By George Jones, Political Editor

Daily Telegraph
(Filed: 17/07/2002)


Tony Blair said yesterday that he wanted to change his style of government
because his first term in power had been dominated too much by spin and
presentation.


Tony Blair takes questions from the liaison committee
Appearing for the first time before a Commons select committee, Mr Blair
said he wanted "to do things differently" and to be more open and
accountable.

For two and a half hours he faced respectful questioning from the Liaison
Committee, made up of chairmen of the Commons select committees which
monitor the activities of government departments.

Mr Blair - in shirtsleeves - cast aside the normal party political
infighting, even emphasising that there were policy areas such as transport,
pensions and housing where he would like to achieve cross-party consensus.

The question-and-answer session, which will now be a twice-yearly event,
revealed an undercurrent of concern among the MPs that the role of
Parliament had been downgraded, with too much power now concentrated in
Downing Street, particularly in the hands of unelected advisers.

But Mr Blair blocked their demands for the select committees to be able to
question advisers such as Lord Birt, who is looking at "blue skies thinking"
on transport. He said they should stick to questioning ministers.

Tony Wright, Labour chairman of the Public Administration Committee, asked
Mr Blair whether his appearance was because his Government had the label
"spin" attached to it in the same way as "sleaze" dogged the Tories.

Mr Blair told the MPs: "It is part of doing it differently, frankly. There's
no point in me coming before a gathering like this unless I were to open up
more than I would during the normal knockabout."

During 18 years in opposition, Labour had developed the tendency to believe
that an "announcement is the reality" even though they were never in a
position to deliver anything "on the ground".

"For the first period of time in government there was a tendency to believe
the same situation applied," he said. "It isn't. The announcement is only
the intention.

"Doing it this way, making sure we have more ministerial statements, trying
to reach out, is a way of overcoming what is the perception - I think
unfairly - of news management."

Challenged directly by Sir George Young (C, Hampshire NW) on whether he had
introduced a presidential style of government, Mr Blair replied: "I truly
believe not. I think that's unfair and wrong."

Mr Blair has previously resisted calls from select committees to appear
before them, arguing that MPs could question him once a week in the Commons.

He admitted that Prime Minister's question time was "80 per cent theatre"
and that in deciding to give evidence to the committee he had been through
"something of a Damascene conversion".

Responding to criticisms that his Government was too centralised from No 10,
Mr Blair said he would make "no apology" for that approach. He said he would
not dispute that the centre had been "considerably" strengthened.

A "strong centre" was essential to ensure public service reform was
implemented. As Prime Minister, "the buck stops with you and that is how it
should be".

He said he had not ruled out a referendum on the euro during this Parliament
and denied that there were any differences between himself and Gordon Brown
over the single currency.

The Prime Minister gave his most explicit endorsement yet of the growing
likelihood of American-led military action to remove Saddam Hussein from
power in Iraq.

He disclosed there were "various rough linkages" between Saddam and Osama
bin Laden's al-Qa'eda organisation, but said there was no evidence linking
him to the attack on September 11.

Mr Blair told Donald Anderson, the Labour chairman of the Foreign Affairs
Select Committee, that bin Laden and al-Qa'eda were well known prior to
September 11, but the international community failed to act successfully
against them.

"What we should learn from that is that if there is a gathering threat or
danger, let us deal with it before it materialises rather than afterwards."

The Prime Minister said that no decisions had been taken on possible
military action against Iraq and all options were open. But he regarded the
potential threat as "enormous".

*****************************************************
D. Blair warns strike on Iraq may be needed
By James Blitz in London

Financial Times
Published: July 16 2002 19:59 | Last Updated: July 16 2002 19:59

 Tony Blair, the UK prime minister, on Tuesday gave his most explicit
warning yet of the need for a pre-emptive military strike against Saddam
Hussein's Iraqi regime, warning that there were "rough linkages" between
Baghdad and the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Appearing before a committee of lawmakers, America's chief ally in Europe
insisted that no decision had yet been taken by the US over whether to
attack Iraq. But he warned that the risk of Mr Hussein developing weapons of
mass destruction was "enormous" and that the hazards posed by his weapons
programme were "growing, not diminishing".

During a two-and-a-half hour question and answer session, Mr Blair noted
that the West had failed to make a pre-emptive strike against Osama bin
Laden's al-Qaeda, which the US blames for the September 11 attacks, even
though the terrorist movement had been known long before then.

"What we should learn from that is that if there is a gathering threat or
danger, let us deal with it before it materialises rather than afterwards,"
he said.

Mr Blair was asked whether there was any evidence linking Mr Hussein with
al-Qaeda. "There, as far as I am aware, is not evidence linking Saddam
Hussein to the actual attack on September 11," he said.

Pressed on whether Mr Hussein could be linked with the al-Qaeda movement, he
said: "There are various rough linkages there but the issue is weapons of
mass destruction. It is not what happened on September 11 or the al-Qaeda
network.

"In the general flow of stuff that comes out of Washington or here, people
can get the idea that all the decisions have been taken and so on. They
haven't been. But there is a threat . . . the options are open and we do
have to deal with it," he added.

Mr Hussein is on Wednesday set to mark the 34th anniversary of the
revolution that brought his Ba'ath party to power.

*****************************************************
E. Extract from the tanscript of Blair's appearance before the Select
Committee.

[The questioner is Donald Anderson]

Q: Prime Minister, the war against terrorism and the possible conflict with
Iraq: last year after the outrage of 11 September there was a substantial
degree of consensus in public and parliamentary opinion. The approval
ratings of government conduct were high also in terms of the possible
military intervention of British forces and so on. We are now moving into a
further phase of the war against terrorism. How do you think we can keep
public and parliamentary opinion on board as we move?

(Mr Blair) By reminding people of what happened on 11 September and by
reminding them, too, of the fact that those responsible for it, the Al-Qaeda
terrorist network and Osama Bin Laden, were not unknown before 11 September.
They were known, they were very active but for all sorts of perfectly
obvious reasons there was not a great deal of a concerted nature done to
deal with them. We need to keep people eternally vigilant about this.

Q: And your own role, Prime Minister? Last September you brought together
the four relevant select committees at Downing Street. Would you be prepared
to repeat that as we possibly move into a difficult phase with Iraq?

(Mr Blair) Certainly I would be very happy to repeat it. I am not saying
anything about any new phases or any of the rest of it but I would be very
happy to repeat it at any point in time.

Q: In terms of informing public opinion, you will recall that last September
there were a number of documents published by the Government setting out the
case. Will you consider that again?

(Mr Blair) Do you mean fresh documents on new aspects?

Q: Weapons of mass destruction, the nature of the threat and so on.

(Mr Blair) Absolutely. The only reason we have not published some of this
documentation before is that you have got to choose your time for doing this
otherwise you send something rocketing up the agenda when it is not
necessarily there. Certainly if we do move into a new phase, yes, of course,
we will publish.

Q: In terms of Parliament you will recall that there was quite a lot of
anger in Parliament that we were denied a vote on the issue and the device
of a debate on the adjournment was used. Are you against having a
substantive vote if it were to come to a military conflict in the future?

(Mr Blair) I think we have to decide that at the time really. I cannot
honestly believe myself that people were not given the opportunity to
express very clearly what they felt on it.

Q: Why against having a vote where people can say "we are for" or "we are
against" this particular military intervention?

(Mr Blair) I think there are all sorts of ways that can be done. We did not
feel as a Government that that was necessary at that time.

Q: Why not do it directly?

(Mr Blair) You can do but I would not want to commit myself at this stage on
what is on any basis a hypothesis about what might or might not happen in
the future.

Q: Can you at least give this assurance, that Parliament will be consulted
before British troops are deployed?

(Mr Blair) Surely. We will keep up detailed consultations with Parliament. I
think most people say after 11 September we did. We made frequent statements
after 11 September. I came to the House myself I think on 14 September and
then I updated that. Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon both made regular statements
to the House. We will keep the House very, very closely involved indeed.

Q: Turning to Iraq, Prime Minister, you will recall there has been a sea
change in US policy from the last administration. President Clinton was for
containment of Iraq, President Bush now talks of regime change. Has our
policy in the UK evolved in just the same way from one President to another?

(Mr Blair) Strangely, if you actually talk to the Americans what they will
say is the Clinton administration also had a policy of regime change but how
you pursue that policy is another matter. It is true, certainly, however,
that the issue of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction is on the agenda in a
different way. I would refer back to what I said in the House, I think, on
14 September - this was literally, as I said, a few days after 11
September - when I said that these issues of weapons of mass destruction
were the coming next issue. I do believe that they are. I think they pose an
enormous threat to the world. How we deal with that, however, is an open
question. That is why I say constantly to people there are no decisions
which have been made in relation to Iraq at all but there is no doubt that
Iraq poses a threat in respect of weapons of mass destruction and there is
no doubt that this is an issue which should be dealt with. The one thing
that we have learned post 11 September is that to take action in respect of
a threat that is coming may be more sensible than to wait for the threat to
materialise and then to take action.

Q: Are we then preparing for possible military action in Iraq?

(Mr Blair) No, there are no decisions which have been taken about military
action.

Q: Are we to interpret the recent deployment of British troops from Kosovo
and Afghanistan as possible preparation?

(Mr Blair) No, people should not read that into it either. That is not to
say that it is not important that we look at all the various options that we
may have but as I have said to people, I think I said in the House a few
months ago, there are no decisions which have been taken about this yet and
if the situation changes in any serious or dramatic way we will tell them.

Q: Do you agree we should only take action in accordance with international
law?

(Mr Blair) Yes, certainly I agree that we should act, as I hope this country
always does, in accordance with international law.

Q: There are two sets of UN Security Council Resolutions, those after 11
September and those after the Gulf War. So far as 11 September is concerned,
is there any evidence linking Saddam Hussein with al-Qaeda?

(Mr Blair) As far as I am aware there is no evidence linking Saddam Hussein
to the actual attack on 11th September.

Q: Or linking al-Qaeda?

(Mr Blair) There are various rough linkages there but the issue is weapons
of mass destruction. It is not what happened on 11 September or the al-Qaeda
terrorist network.

Q: What has changed then in respect of weapons of mass destruction and the
Gulf War Security Council Resolutions since the change of US President?

(Mr Blair) I think there are things which have changed there. First of all,
it is clear that Saddam Hussein is still trying to develop weapons of mass
destruction. Secondly, there is the whole issue of weapons inspectors where
he is still refusing to abide by the UN Resolutions. He is in breach of
areas....

Q: That has not changed?

(Mr Blair) Yes, that is true, but as more negotiations go on and he fails to
comply and you know that he is developing these weapons of mass destruction,
then over a period of time you are entitled to draw the conclusion that this
threat is growing not diminishing. In addition to that - I think it is very
important people realise this - our pilots are in action virtually every day
over Iraq. This is not something which has gone dead post the end of the
Gulf War, it is still very, very live indeed. The fourth issue is - this is
why on 11 September you can say either "this is a one off event, and you
should not read anything much into it other than the terrible atrocity which
happened" or you can say, as I would, "there are lessons which should be
learned from it"- we knew about al-Qaeda for a long period of time. They
were committing terrorist acts, they were planning, they were organising,
everybody knew. We all knew that Afghanistan was a failed state living on
drugs and terror. We did not act and to be truthful about it there is no way
we would have got the public consent to have suddenly launched a campaign on
Afghanistan but for what happened on 11 September, but we should learn from
that. What we should learn from that is that if there is a gathering threat
or danger let us deal with it before it materialises rather than afterwards.
I say it again, because it is important, in the general flow of stuff which
comes out of Washington or here people can get the idea that all the
decisions have been taken and so on. They have not been but there is a
threat. The threat has changed in the way I have described post 11
September, partly because of 11 September itself. The options are open but
we do have to deal with it. How we deal with it, however, is as I say an
open question.

Q: Prime Minister, the special relationship with the US is clearly a key
part of our security policy and the closeness, the unwillingness to
criticise is justified by the fact that we have special influence on the US
administration. Can you give to the Committee any example of ways in which
that influence has changed or modified US policy?

(Mr Blair) I never like to approach it in that way because it suggests
almost as if you go along as a supplicant to the US and you make a case and
if you are lucky you win a verdict on points. It is just not like that. The
truth is we are very interlocked in our strategic relationship and we
discuss and deal with issues the whole time together. If I can give you
issues where we worked closely. I do not put it like "an influence on them".
If you come up and say to me "You were a constraining influence on George
Bush post 11 September", I was not. He did not need constraining. He acted
sensibly by his own lights. The first conversation we ever had was him
saying "Look, there is no point in just sending a load of missiles over for
effect, we have to deal with this issue in a considered way". Now we worked
then very, very closely with them on all the strategic details of that
Afghan campaign. To give you another example where we have worked closely;
the new NATO-Russia relationship, which is very, very important, is a huge
breakthrough because it allows Russia to move closer to the West, puts the
whole of that relationship and the tensions within it on a new and better
footing. That was something we worked terribly closely with the United
States on. Now whether you describe that as having influence, I prefer to
look at it as a partnership.






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