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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 January, 2003, 12:40 GMT
Prime Minister prepares for war
Prime Minister Tony Blair MP
Prime Minister Tony Blair MP

Breakfast With Frost Interview with Prime Minister Tony Blair, 26 January 2003

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: And now, the news is that the Prime Minister's here. Good morning, Prime Minister.

TONY BLAIR: Good morning David.

DAVID FROST: From the reports in all the papers today - this headline says US gives Blix more time but edges closer to conflict - do I gather from this that we in Britain would agree with that, and that we are prepared, if the inspectors tomorrow say - they haven't had time to complete the job satisfactorily, we would give them further time, whether weeks or months?

TONY BLAIR: They've got to be given the time to do the job, but it's important to define what the job is, because this is where I think a lot of confusion comes in.

The job of the inspectors is to certify whether Saddam is co-operating, or not, with the UN inspections regime. And that duty to cooperate doesn't just mean that he has to give them access to particular sites, it means he's got to cooperate fully in saying exactly what weapons material he has, allowing the inspectors to inspect it, monitor it and shut it down.

DAVID FROST: So we would give him extra time Hans Blix and El Baradei?

TONY BLAIR: We've gone down the UN route precisely because the inspectors have got to be the means of trying to resolve this peacefully. If the inspectors are able to do their job, fine.

But if they're not able to do their job then we have to disarm Saddam by force. And that's always been the choice.

DAVID FROST: But we would give them extra time, the inspectors, if they need it? Space and time, time and space you said.

TONY BLAIR: Of course, and I've always said the inspectors should have the time to do their job, but what's important is that their job is not to repeat what happened in the 1990s.

What happened in the 1990s is in April '91, when the first resolution was passed saying Saddam must disarm, he was then supposed to give 15 days notice of a declaration of everything he had and the inspectors were then to go in and shut it down.

Now we've been almost 12 years waiting for him to do that so the time the inspectors need is not time to play a game of hide and seek with Saddam, where they go in and try and find the stuff and he tries to conceal it.

The objective of the inspectors is on the basis of a full and honest declaration by Saddam of what he has then to shut it down. So the time they need is in order to certify whether he's fully cooperating or not.

DAVID FROST And they should, they should have that time, whether it's weeks or even if it's months.

TONY BLAIR: Well I don't believe it will take them weeks to find out whether - months rather - to find out whether he's cooperating or not but they should have whatever time they need

. And we've said that right from the very beginning. And, you know, one of the interesting things about this is - I heard your report earlier when your correspondent was saying the war is inevitable - war is not inevitable.

It depends on Saddam. If he cooperates with the inspectors and if he says how much material he's got, if he cooperates fully with them in allowing them, not just access, but telling them what material he has and allowing them then to shut it down and make Iraq safe and free of weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological, and potentially nuclear, then the issue is over.

But he's not doing that at the moment.

DAVID FROST: Well that's very clear but I mean the thing is that we were told, we were given to understand that what these inspectors was going to come up with was evidence of weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological and nuclear.

Compared to that, which obviously is a reason for war or military action, these rather pale things, the non-compliance, the shells, Blix's men sent on hide and seek missions, Iraqi scientists not agreeing to an interview unless and Iraqi person there, that all sounds the reason for a stiff rebuke, not a war.

TONY BLAIR: No, I mean I profoundly disagree with, with this idea that somehow if Saddam refuses to cooperate then that's okay, that's of a lesser order.

Look, what we know is that he has this material. From what was left over in 1998, for example, we know there is something like 350 tonnes of chemical warfare agent. We know that there is something like 30,000 special munitions for the delivery of chemical and biological weapons.

He hasn't even told us where those old leftovers from 1998 are. Now, what we know Saddam is doing is that there is an elaborate process, an infrastructure if you like, of concealment, where he is putting the stuff out into different parts of the country, concealing it.

Where he's saying, for example, that the people that the inspectors want to interview - because that's one of his duties is to allow people to be interviewed - these people are being told, by the Iraqi authorities, they can only come for interviews with an Iraqi, so-called, minder, and only be interviewed in certain places.

And we know also from intelligence that these people's families are being told that if they cooperate and give any information at all they will be executed. Now, if he fails to cooperate in being honest and he is pursuing a programme of concealment, that is every bit as much a breach as finding, for example, a missile or the chemical agent.

DAVID FROST: Now one of the papers here says that you may prepare another dossier because the first one didn't have a lot of impact and so on, but what are the sort of things you can tell us now that our intelligence has discovered that you will be passing on to the world? What, do you have a killer fact?

TONY BLAIR: Well what we have is the intelligence that says that Saddam has continued to develop these weapons of mass destruction; that what he's doing is using a whole lot of dual use facilities in order to manufacture chemical and biological weapons; and what we know is that there is an elaborate programme of concealment, as I say, that is pushing this stuff into different parts of the country and therefore forcing the inspectors to play a game of hide and seek.

And what I say to people emphatically is that the UN mandate, set out in the UN resolution in November, is a UN mandate that says that Saddam must not just give access to different sites but cooperate fully with the inspectors.

Otherwise the thing is a charade with the inspectors, who aren't after all a detective agency, I mean they're experts in munitions.

DAVID FROST: Do you think at the moment we have, you have, in the light of the things you said, actually sufficient evidence, if you wish to, to go to war tomorrow - if you weren't waiting for the UN - do you think you have the goods on him now sufficient to back action?

TONY BLAIR: Well I've got no doubt at all that he's developing these weapons and that he poses a threat but we made a choice to go down the UN route and we're pursuing that UN route and we'll stick with the UN route. I mean, again, when people say to me, I had someone, as I was going into a building the other day someone shouted out to me "stop the war" and I said I haven't started it.

We're not at war. And what we've laid down is a process that has to be gone through where there is a UN mandate given to the inspectors, the inspectors have got to fulfil that mandate and our judgement, the American judgement, of course is that Saddam has these weapons, but the purpose of the inspectors going in is for the inspectors then, as, if you like, the objective party, to report back to the UN and say either he is fully cooperating or he's not.

DAVID FROST: So do we need, require or would prefer, a second resolution?

TONY BLAIR: Of course we want a second resolution and there is only one set of circumstances in which I've said that we would move without one. And so, you know, all this stuff that, you know, we're indifferent to whether there's a UN resolution or not, is nonsense. We're very focused on getting a UN resolution. There is one set of circumstances -

DAVID FROST: Just the one, you say.

TONY BLAIR: Just the one - and that is the circumstances where the UN inspectors say he's not cooperating and he's in breach of the resolution that was passed in November but the UN because someone, say, unreasonably exercises their veto and blocks a new resolution.

Now in those circumstances you damage the UN if the UN inspectors say he's not cooperating, he's in breach, and the world does nothing about it. But I don't believe that will happen. I think that if there is a finding by the inspectors and, you know, Monday's report is just the first full report - there will be other reports - but if they find that he's not cooperating then I believe that a second resolution will issue.

And, you know, again, just to stress the importance of this, if we end up with this issue of weapons of mass destruction - which I think is a huge question facing the world today, I think this and international terrorism are the two big security threats - if we face an issue where around Iraq, which is a country that has used weapons of mass destruction, the UN comes to a position and says you've got to disarm yourself of those weapons, and then the UN does nothing about the failure to disarm, well how when we deal with North Korea are we going to get them to treat us seriously?

How when we take these issues out to other countries that are developing potentially nuclear capability are they going to take the international community seriously when faced with the challenge of Iraq we've done nothing?

DAVID FROST: And what about the situation of persuading the people? As you will have seen today, the UGov poll, this is in the situation where we go ahead of course without UN blessing, and in that situation 23 per cent, minus, was the situation in September, minus 23 in favour of no, and now it's gone up to 20 - 73, ie: 53, more than doubled the opposition to that situation.

How can you get through the message to those people? You hope, of course, you won't go ahead without UN blessing but if you did how would you try and convert, because it's very, to put it mildly, uncomfortable to go to war with 73 per cent against.

TONY BLAIR: Yes, but again, I think this is because if people are being asked today do you support a war, my answer to that is we're not at war today. And the circumstances in which we would engage in conflict are circumstances which haven't yet arisen.

They are circumstances in which the UN inspectors say he's supposed to cooperate with us and he's not cooperating - for example he's refusing to allow us to interview the right people, he's refusing to tell us exactly what's happened to the weaponry that he had - and in those circumstances I think, especially obviously if the UN pass the second resolution as I believe they will if the inspectors carry on saying he's not cooperating, I think public opinion is in a different place. And, you know, I do make this point quite strongly to people, were it not for the stand we have taken does anyone seriously think we'd either have the UN inspectors in there or any chance of resolving this peacefully.

DAVID FROST: But at the moment you do you have 75 per cent of the public, you've united all our quarrelling clerics in this country - they're all against you - and no Muslim leader's come out in favour, it's a tough, tough road to hoe.

TONY BLAIR: Well it is tough and it's tough for a very simple reason that people don't see an immediate threat arising from Saddam and it's, it's my job as prime minister to say to people, there may not be an immediate threat in the sense that Saddam's about to launch a strike against Britain, but this issue of weapons of mass destruction is a huge question for the world, because we know that countries are trying to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, these are highly unstable states, we know this stuff is being traded across international frontiers at the moment, we know that international terrorist groups - and this is the link with terrorism - are trying to acquire these weapons, unless we take a stand then we will find in years to come it is very much more difficult to deal with this issue. And I think it is only a matter of time before international terrorism and these types of weapons come together.

I mean, you know, you can already see from the arrests that are happening right round Europe, these terrorist groups will use chemical weapons if they can. They don't have the capability at the moment to cause enormous damage with those but if they could do so they would.

DAVID FROST: Colin Powell said, in an interview with me sometime ago back in September or whatever, and he's said it since, that the important thing is not, not knowing when to start a war, it's knowing how to end it. Now what are we going to do if we get to Baghdad, if we're victorious, what happens then? How are we going to end it? Are we going to set up a UN protectorate, or what? We must know that, obviously.

TONY BLAIR: Well we don't know the, the precise details for that, that's something to discuss with the UN, with allies, obviously. But what we do know is that it should be a, a stable government that tries to release Iraq from what is frankly the appalling situation Saddam has put it in.

Because remember, partly as a result of the fact we've been unable to contain Saddam any other way, the world has had to impose through the UN sanctions on Iraq which because of the way Saddam operates those sanctions have meant terrible misery and exploitation for millions of Iraqi people.

So, that's why, you know you mentioned the clerics a short time ago, I've always found it odd that anybody, particularly people who, if you like, are more on the centre left, could ever dispute the fact that getting rid of Saddam would be a huge bonus for the world.

DAVID FROST: Well the Archbishop of Canterbury said that it's in violation of Christian moral teaching. That was the man you made Archbishop of Canterbury.

TONY BLAIR: Well then it's his - as I always say to people - it's his right to speak out as he wants. But I think it would be certainly a violation of our duty to protect the world if we, having laid down the law as it were, through the UN to Saddam, then walked away from it.

DAVID FROST: You must be annoyed, obviously, with Chirac and Schroeder on this particular issue. I mean you must sometimes think God, why didn't we join Nafta.

TONY BLAIR: (LAUGHS) No I don't think that, no. I mean they're entitled to different views but, you know, French foreign policy no more represents European foreign policy exclusively than does British foreign policy.

I mean countries have different positions. But no all European countries are in that position. Spain, Italy, other European countries have strongly supported the stand we've taken.

DAVID FROST: Fear of Israel - they've made it clear that if they're attacked by Saddam they'll nuke him back. Are you worried about what that would do?

TONY BLAIR: Well one of the reasons why we're taking this action is that if Saddam is allowed to build up these weapons then of course he will threaten his neighbours - he's done it before. But it is extremely important that we make sure that we reduce whatever possibility there is of any conflict we're engaged in spreading.

One is, certainly one, if there is any advantage in what Saddam has done, which is to try and dismantle the programme and push it out and conceal it in different parts of the country, is that it's more difficult for him to bring it together.

DAVID FROST: But I mean would you give him a warning, rather like the warning that the then President Bush did in the Gulf War, that if he was to use any of these weapons which we say he's got, that we, we would use nuclear weapons?

TONY BLAIR: I don't think any warnings that we give are best done in a public way, and in any event we'll consider that situation when we get nearer the point of action, if action there needs to be. But as I say, just to come back to the basic point I'm making, Saddam could avoid a war - today! - if he made an honest, full declaration of the material he has.

DAVID FROST: Know thy enemy, that was another phrase that Colin Powell once said. Obviously we have psychological profiles and everything, we're trying, you're trying to assess and second guess what Saddam will do next and so on. Do you think you are dealing with a man who is mad or bad?

TONY BLAIR: Well bad, certainly. I mean any -

DAVID FROST: Mad?

TONY BLAIR: (SIGHS) I don't know, I mean I'm not in a position to, to judge that. I mean he's, he's exercised considerable skill, actually, in avoiding the UN mandate for 12 years. I mean people do forget where, that in April 1991 when the inspectors first UN resolution was passed, 15 days was the deadline.

Well we're 12 years later, so you require a certain amount of skill in playing the international community off against each other.

DAVID FROST: So skill ... - and in terms of the trip to see the president this week, what's the most important thing you've got to do, or you both have got to do, when you meet, following the reports, tomorrow's reports, what's the most important item on the agenda?

TONY BLAIR: To agree the right strategy for the future and to go out and explain to people yet again why it is important to deal with this issue.

And I think that the missing part which, you know, we've got a responsibility to get across to people, is to explain how, why we are concerned about this whole issue of weapons of mass destruction - because I think there's a sense in which people feel, because if something like the 11th of September happens they can see an immediate event has happened, there's an immediate threat, there's something you need to go after - I think it's a lot more difficult with this issue because people don't perceive an immediate threat and yet it's our job, I think, to say to people, look this is why we're worried about this issue, not just in respect of Iraq, but more broadly than that, and this is the potential link this has with these terrible, extremist, fanatical groups who have given a quite different dimension to terrorism.

DAVID FROST: And people who say, what about the people who say that there's a real downside to this? Britain becoming a more attractive target for terrorism, the Middle East going up in flames, all of those things, Iraqis being killed, civilians being killed in their hundreds, what do you feel about that? There is a downside, obviously, this is, you're not painting this as a hundred per cent perfect?

TONY BLAIR: Of course not - and the very reason we went down the UN route, when some people thought that we were just going to lash out, is precisely to give peace a chance to work.

But, in the end, what have we learnt from our own history and the history of the world, that if there is wrong in the world, if there is a threat and you don't deal with it, you have to deal with it with even worse consequences in the future.

And, you know, the person who's killed hundreds, thousands of Iraqis is Saddam. I mean he's the person who used chemical weapons against his own Iraqi people. Incidentally, about Britain being a target, who would have thought Indonesia was going to be a target, when those people died in Bali? Or Kenya?

Round the whole of Europe there are arrests happening - not just in Britain, but in France, for example, which you might have thought has taken a slightly softer position on the question of Iraq. We're not going to avoid this by hiding away - and it's not what the British do anyway. I mean there's a struggle on and we've got to be there and we will have, I think, you know, we will have no influence in shaping it unless we were there and prepared to be there and I really passionately believe this. The world is very ambivalent towards America on these issues.

We want America to deal with these issues and yet we want to attack them at the same time. And I think that when America is taking on these tough and difficult questions our job is to be there. Not be there at any price, not be there without saying how we think the thing should be dealt with, but being there in the difficult and tricky times, not simply there, you know, as fair weather friends.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much on the subject of Iraq. Let's move on in the time we have left to some local issues. Just ask, since one was raised here on the programme, is it true what they say in the papers, that you're warming to the idea of us making a bid for the Olympics?

TONY BLAIR: Well we'd better wait for the decision, which is, as you were saying - I didn't actually here the discussion between Gerald and Linford, I don't know whether they resolved it between them but -

DAVID FROST: No, no they - Gerald Kaufman was saying, was talking about the financial dangers, Linford Christie was pointing out, as we did that the Australians made a profit of two billion. But you haven't made up your mind yet?

TONY BLAIR: No. We need to study very carefully the stuff that's coming in, and the two basic issues are going to be affordability and have you got a good fighting chance of winning, because you're going to have to spend a lot of money and time in mounting the bid.

Now, you know, you can't guarantee, obviously of course, that you're going to win, but are you going to be a, you know, a potential winner. And that's what we're looking at now, and obviously it would be a great thing for the country to do but you've got to be sure that we're able to do it and that it's affordable.

DAVID FROST: The subject that's really greatly on people's minds at the moment, of course, is the whole question of asylum seekers.

And when people read these statistics - just to quote a couple, Home Office figures show that fewer than 40,000 out of the 224,000 rejected applicants were deported between 1997 and 2001, that means that nearly 185,000 are living illegally in the UK and there are more statistics like that and we, we ditched the plan that we were going to expel 30,000, a modest target, but that was found to be impossible and so on, and then there was Jon Owen Jones and his speech and so on - but basically it seems that particularly in this terrifying area of hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people disappearing into thin air into this country and we don't know where they are.

It sounds as though the asylum seeking issue is out of control.

TONY BLAIR: Well, the first thing, is this is not just an issue for us. It's an issue for every country in Europe and beyond Europe as well because there are massive migratory flows happening across the world at the moment. And, for example, France has found its asylum seeking applications up 30 per cent in the last year, Switzerland, Sweden, up by 20, 30 per cent. Secondly, however -

DAVID FROST: But they always, they, they get the people out quicker and they take a lower percentage they say yes to.

TONY BLAIR: They don't actually. If you look proportionately, the British population compared with other European populations we're about the middle of the table. And in fact we remove more people from Britain than any other country in Europe.

However, the problem is really this, which is why the present situation is unacceptable and we have to deal with it, and I'm under no doubt about that at all, which is why in the past few months we have been working very closely, myself and the Home Secretary, to take a whole series of new measures - we passed the legislation last November, that legislation's coming into effect now. It, for example, takes away the automatic right to benefits for asylum seekers in this country, it means that those countries from which they come where the claims are obviously ill-founded, we deal with on a fast-track basis and put them out of the country before they're able to appeal.

It means that we fingerprint all asylum seekers now, we track them far more carefully, we make sure, for example, that in respect of the appeal system we've speeded up enormously so that we get the cases determined within a far shorter period of time.

There are a whole series of measures that we're taking now to reduce the number of applications. But I have absolutely no doubt at all we have to deal with this issue and if these measures that we're taking now, that are just coming into effect now, for example, controls, British immigration officers are at French ports right across France, you know, and we'll extend that into other countries as well, by agreement, in order to stop people coming into Britain illegally.

But if the measures that we're taking, which we've been working on for some time and are just coming into effect now, if those measures don't work, then we will have to consider further measures, including fundamentally looking at the obligations we have under the convention of human rights.

DAVID FROST: Yes, it hasn't start to work yet obviously, but Labour MPs -

TONY BLAIR: It is, it is working - it's fair to say that in the past couple of months the numbers claiming have actually come down quite sharply but I'm not under any illusion that we need to make sure that continues and you need, the key to it, is to get substantial numbers, the application numbers substantially down. That is absolute key.

Because the problem with removing people, which is why, as I say, we remove more than other country in Europe, the problem with removing people is that under the obligations we have you cannot remove someone to a country where they might be subject to torture.

DAVID FROST: But there are, there are mad things about that. Jon Owen Jones, the Labour MP, told the House of Commons this week, you probably heard it, that a former Afghan Taliban fighter - Taliban fighter - had come to him asking him for help in seeking asylum because if he was sent back to Afghanistan he was in danger of being arrested by us! And he goes on to say one needs to question whether this is a sensible system ...

TONY BLAIR: Yes, and quite right too. But I mean let's wait and see how these people's claims actually get determined.

DAVID FROST: But if these latest plans don't work, you'll try again and with tougher ones?

TONY BLAIR: Well we have got to deal with the issue, now as I say we have put in a whole series of measures but I just want to make this other point as well, because people are now saying to us well you've got to take tougher and tougher measures.

We've introduced two pieces of legislation since I've been in office, both of which have toughened and tightened up the asylum laws.

On each occasion, however, we have been subject to a huge onslaught against those measures from people who said it was a breach of people's civil liberties, the Conservative Party may be saying now that they want tougher measures, they were actually opposing many of the measures that we were introducing to toughen up the asylum system, and all I say to people is, if we want these tougher measures to work, we've got to be prepared to take them.

And we are prepared to take them but I just hope that we get the support we need when we do take them.

DAVID FROST: Top up fees, which have caused a real row, in particularly access tsar ... and quotas for students and so on, ... possibility at the expense of ability. Someone pointed out the other day, I think it was Jackie Ashley that middle class parents have the situation of being told, one you are going to pay more money, two your children are going to go to less good universities because the access tsar is going to push in people from poorer families even if they're not as well qualified, so the middle classes lose out twice over.

TONY BLAIR: Which is completely wrong, of course, because first of all at the moment parents have to pay - particularly middle class parents - they have to pay fees up front.

They won't have to pay any fees up front at all and the student will only pay back, as a graduate, linked to their ability to pay, and the loan is interest free. Now let me just explain to you why this reform is necessary - and incidentally not all universities will be charging the additional fees. You know, this is primarily for the top universities - so let me explain to you exactly the conundrum we face and then I hope people can see why we've had to take this decision.

At the moment, although all university students pay the same fee, the amount of public money that goes, for example, to Oxford is four times the amount that goes, say, to Wolverhampton University, although they have the same number of students. So at the moment although all students pay the same, there is a huge additional amount of public taxpayers money that goes to the top universities.

On the other hand, unfortunately, if you compare say Cambridge with Harvard in the United States, Cambridge has about half the amount of money that Harvard has. Now in the end our top universities are competing in a world market today.

They need more money, we've given them more, but if they need even more money, it is surely right that they raise some of that by way of repayment from the students once they graduate, so that we don't end up having to pay even more taxpayers money, raising it from the majority of taxpayers who've never been to university or the majority of graduates who haven't been to these top universities. And in addition to that, of course, we're introducing, reintroducing, maintenance grants for the poorer students.

Now, incidentally, about the access regulator, there is no way the access regulator is going to be saying that people from, if you like, poorer backgrounds, have got to be given preference over people from middle class backgrounds - it is simply to make sure that, for example, universities are doing their best to go out and tell some of the, the kids from the poorer schools, this is something you can do.

But there's no, there's going to be no positive discrimination in favour of people from particular incomes and against people from other incomes, that's not the way the access regulator will work.

DAVID FROST: And just a word about the thing that dominated the press for the few weeks leading up to Christmas, the whole Peter Foster affair. Did you learn any valuable lessons from that?

TONY BLAIR: Well I think you always learn lessons from it but I think, you know the biggest lesson, I'm afraid, is this type of stuff comes with the job and the most important thing is not to get distracted and carry on doing the things that are important.

DAVID FROST: But people have said that the cover up was the problem - you could say there was nothing to cover up there, but there still was a cover up.

TONY BLAIR: Yes, but I mean, you know, what happens in these situations is that people go into a complete frenzy about it and people have just got to realise when you're doing, you know, we've been discussing issues today that I hope, rightly, occupy my time and, well, these things come and go.

DAVID FROST: What about one of your, one of your un-named Cabinet ministers said of yourself and Gordon Brown, one of them will not be in their current job in a year's time?

TONY BLAIR: I think I say to that what I've said every time this issue has been raised - and I think you've probably raised it at least once a year over the years - and that is it's an extremely strong relationship and it carries on being a strong relationship.

DAVID FROST: It still goes on being.

TONY BLAIR: I know, and, and, you know, Gordon has done a fantastic job in managing the economy - the British economy this year is better, in better shape, than any other economy, major economy in the world. We've got interest rates, inflation, at all time lows - or certainly for the last four decades. We've got unemployment lower in Britain than any other nation.

DAVID FROST: So, I mean you're certain he'll be chancellor at Christmas? Gordon shouldn't be looking for a new home?

TONY BLAIR: Well, as I said, he does a fantastic job.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed.

[BREAKS FOR NEWS]

DAVID FROST: Andre Agassi did it in an hour and a quarter and you did two and a half hours with the Commons committee this week.

TONY BLAIR: Yes, I think Agassi will get a bit more out of his win than my appearing in front of the committee but it maybe that a 32 year old who goes on playing like that -

DAVID FROST: Hope for us all.

TONY BLAIR: Absolutely.

DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed, Tony.

INTERVIEW ENDS



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