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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 May, 2004, 10:19 GMT 11:19 UK
Interview with the Prime Minister
On Sunday, 30 May 2004, Sir David Frost interviewed the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, MP

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

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, MP
The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, MP

DAVID FROST: Well, as promised, the Prime Minister is indeed here with us right now - Prime Minister welcome.

Perhaps, we should just start with the news from yesterday of what went on in Saudi Arabia, linked with al-Qaeda by some of the accounts and so on, what, what's the latest you know about it?

TONY BLAIR: The latest we know is simply that the situation is being resolved but obviously there, there's been loss of life and it's yet another reminder of, of the terrorist threat that we face.

DAVID FROST: Some people, of course, say that Iraq didn't lessen terror around the world but encouraged al-Qaeda to do more, if anything - provoked it to do more. What do you say to that?

TONY BLAIR: The most important thing for people to remember is that this terrorism has been going on for several years, even before September 11th. But then September 11th was a totally unprovoked attack by al-Qaeda on the United States of America.

We've just had a few weeks ago al-Qaeda claiming the assassination of the head of the Iraqi Governing Council. They're there in Iraq now, they're there in Saudi Arabia, they're in European countries, they're trying to operate here.

This isn't a question of Iraq having provoked this, it's been going on for a long time and it is the real security threat we face and resolving the situation in Iraq, getting a stable government, not one run by Saddam Hussein, is actually part of resolving this battle against terrorism.

DAVID FROST: But it has perhaps, in the short term, exacerbated things?

TONY BLAIR: Well I think what happens is, when you start to take these people on, whether by disrupting their activities in Afghanistan, that used to be used as a base, or by trying to make sure that Iraq becomes a stable country and you drive back out the terrorists who are in there at the moment, or indeed in any of our European countries or in Saudi Arabia as we see, the important thing to remember is September 11th, that wasn't begun by America, it was begun by al-Qaeda, and actually September 11th itself was the culmination of a whole series of terrorist attacks.

DAVID FROST: Do we know how many al-Qaeda operatives there are in the UK?

TONY BLAIR: No. We can't be sure.

DAVID FROST: Can't be sure.

TONY BLAIR: But what we do know is that these people are here, they're in every single European country - incidentally, whether those countries supported the war in Iraq or didn't support the war in Iraq - and they pose a threat, a serious threat to us all, and our security services are doing a, a brilliant job of getting on top of it but it's a constant danger.

DAVID FROST: And you're trying to - according to that two page story in the Sunday Times today - you're going to try and woo young Muslims, in particular young Muslims, but Muslims in general, away from al-Qaeda and towards us.

TONY BLAIR: Well I think that there are two things that we need to do. We need to try and make sure that within our, our own country we're in proper dialogue with the Muslim community. Because the leaders of that community are very responsible people - I met some of them when I was in Manchester just the other week.

They're very responsible people but they're under enormous pressure from those within their ranks who say, you know, it's only a very, very small minority, but who push this extremist line.

And that's one thing we've got to do to try and counter that. And the second thing is that we have got to do everything we can to make progress on the Israel-Palestine issue. I mean I don't think there's anything more important to improving the relations between the Arab and Muslim world and the West, than that.

DAVID FROST: And, and in fact there hasn't been much progress in the last year or so, at all. So that's a real disappointment.

TONY BLAIR: It is. I mean we've got a principle now of two states, Israel and Palestine, and the Palestinian state has to be viable, but we have got to make progress on this issue and I don't think there's anything more important. And I think, you know, the, the position that we have on security and terrorism is right - this is the security threat, we have to deal with it - but we will be in a better place to deal with it if we make progress on the Middle East.

DAVID FROST: Let's come on to Iraq just for a few minutes, Prime Minister. Are we now at the stage where you expected us to be a year ago?

TONY BLAIR: Not in security terms. No. I think it's, it's obvious that you've got a coming together of former Saddam elements, some of these local militias and then outside terrorists - and we have to deal with that. I mean it, the point about Iraq is that there's a lot of progress that's been made - I mean I know it doesn't hit the news very much, but actually when you go to parts of Iraq you can see enormous progress being made.

There is one problem, but it's a serious problem, and it is security - because these terrorist groups have a very simple strategy, it is literally to kill anybody who tries to make the country better, to assassinate anybody who is connected with the Iraqi government and to try and disrupt the UN process for a transition to democracy.

So I think we're at the worst time now, and in the months to come, because around the time of the transition to Iraqi sovereignty these people will be attempting to do whatever they can to disrupt that process, and we just have to be ready for that.

DAVID FROST: And inevitably mistakes have been made along the way, haven't they? I mean Mr Allawi who - has everybody signed off on him as the new prime minister, by the way? The Governing Council proposed him, maybe surprisingly, but then have we, have you, the Americans, UN, have they all signed off on him, is he definitely going to be the prime minister?

TONY BLAIR: Well it's not a question of us signing off on him, the important thing is that Mr Brahimi, who is in charge of the United Nations process, that he will nominate the prime minister, president, two vice-presidents, the rest of the government, and it seems that Mr Allawi's name is, is there, but that's really a matter for him.

DAVID FROST: Yes because Mr Allawi, when he was here, sitting on the yellow sofa back in December, he put his finger on one thing - he thought that disbanding, in terms of what I mentioned - disbanding the Iraqi army, after the coalition victory, was a dreadful mistake, and it created the power vacuum that led to the collapse of security in much of the country. Do you think that was a mistake, disbanding the whole - what was it 400,000 - Iraqi army, in retrospect?

TONY BLAIR: I think that there was a - a real difficulty in retrospect, not just about the Iraqi army but about the process of what's called de-Ba'thification, in other words getting rid of the old Ba'th Party, which is the party that supported Saddam Hussein, getting rid of all those elements. And I think probably in retrospect people think well we needed to do that in a more discriminating way than we did.

The only thing I would say against that, however, is that there was huge pressure from within Iraq to make sure that nobody who had any connection with the previous regime was allowed near the new government. But, you know, that, that's in retrospect -

DAVID FROST: It is a classic example of the old phrase "it seemed like a good idea at the time" - now with retrospect it doesn't look a good idea but it, you can see how they did it, why they did it - or why we did it - but it's not a good idea looking back.

TONY BLAIR: Well I think you, you can see now that it's important to make sure that we have the Iraqi security forces themselves in place, and that's really what we're doing. I mean the strategy that we've got for Iraq now has got two parts to it.

One is a political process, which is going to be led by the United Nations, where we have elections in January to a constituent assembly and then full democratic elections at the end of December - which will be a tremendous thing, for Iraq, for the Middle East, for the world.

The second part is a security plan that involves the progressive, what I call Iraqi-isation of the security - in other words, the Iraqi army, the Iraqi civil defence, the Iraqi police start to do the security work.

Now at the moment they need our help but we need progressively to get to a situation where they take it over and we withdraw.

DAVID FROST: What's the situation, Prime Minister, exactly on these 3000 troops that we may or may not be sending? The army generals today and the "army blast Blair for delaying fresh Iraq deployment," delaying it 'til after the elections and so on and so forth, when are you going to make that decision?

TONY BLAIR: Well I don't know. Probably some time in the next few weeks. But it's not being delayed because of the elections at all. I mean it's simply, you know, you need to make sure you get this decision right and there are all sorts of different options that are under consideration.

The important thing is, we've got to remain there until the job is done - although I hope and anticipate that in a year's time there will be a very substantial reduction in troops from where we are now. But it all depends on getting the Iraqi security forces themselves with the capability to do the work.

I mean there will be a complete transfer of sovereignty after the 30th of June - I mean there's no doubt about that. From then on the British forces, the American forces, all the forces from the different 30 countries that are there in Iraq, remain then with the consent of the new Iraqi government. And we remain simply to allow and enable the new Iraqi government to build up those Iraqi forces themselves.

Now that's happening, but it needs to happen quicker and better. They need to be properly trained and equipped and led and that's what we're working on now. So I think you see those two parts of the process, the political process for the UN, and the security process in which we will help.

DAVID FROST: Is there, though, in terms of after June the 30th, is there a slight difference, a difference of emphasis between you and Colin Powell over the rules of engagement, as it were?

That you've made it very, very clear that any politically sensitive military manoeuvre will be subject to the approval of the new government. Does he go along with that?

TONY BLAIR: Absolutely. I mean the difference -

DAVID FROST: He does?

TONY BLAIR: He does, absolutely. The difference is, is very simple. Obviously American or British troops have got to be able to protect themselves and take whatever measures are necessary to protect themselves and once you have taken the political decision to go down a particular direction or mount a particular operation, then obviously the conduct of that operation has got to remain with the generals and the troops on the ground.

But the point is that the political decision making switches after the 30th of June, from Mr Bremmer to the new Iraqi prime minister and government.

DAVID FROST: And how much damage have we sustained, and how lasting damage, from all the troubled stories of what's been going on in the prisons in Iraq? I mean obviously we're losing the battle on the streets, Arab streets now, but how much damage have we sustained?

TONY BLAIR: Well it's been damaging. Because they were absolutely ghastly and unacceptable and they revolted any normal and decent human being. What the lasting damage is, I think will depend on the state of Iraq.

And that's why I say if Iraq, as I believe, can get through to next January, have elections and then get through to proper democratic elections, that is a, that is the biggest defeat of this anti-Western and extremist propaganda that we could possibly imagine.

That is why Iraq is so important. And sometimes, you know, it gets very frustrating when people talk about Iraq today as if prior to the invasion of Iraq it was somehow a benign place.

I mean Iraq had started two wars in that region, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands of their own citizens had been killed and murdered, some in respect of whom chemical weapons had been used, and that whole country was degraded to the point where 60 per cent of the population was dependent on food aid administered through vouchers given out by Saddam Hussein and his government. And so, you know, the idea that what we had prior to the invasion of Iraq was somehow, you know, a settled situation - we didn't.

There were thousands of British troops involved in policing Iraq before we ever began the conflict. Now, as for whatever damage the pictures have done, the question will be, in the end for Iraqis, and I think for the region, have we in fact made the country better.

Do we leave Iraq with the country better, with the oil the property of the Iraqis, with the wealth of Iraq, the Iraqis' wealth, and with the government in the hands of Iraqis.

DAVID FROST: But when - when would you project that security would be such that you would say it was satisfactory? Is that years away?

TONY BLAIR: No. I mean -

DAVID FROST: No?

TONY BLAIR: No, most definitely not. I mean I hope very much within, in the coming months we will see an improvement in security as the Iraqis build up their own capability. And I hope very much in a year from now I would want, certainly by the end of next year, to have a substantial reduction in the British troop commitment.

DAVID FROST: By the end of next year.

TONY BLAIR: Yes, I would certainly hope so. Now, as I say, it depends on the capability of the Iraqis, but when I spoke to the Iraqi Defence Minister, just the other day, he was pretty upbeat about it. I mean the, the problem is not - as I say - complicated. It is groups of terrorists and former regime elements doing everything they can to sabotage progress.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of opinion polls and so on, the, your average satisfaction rating, as I'm sure you know, in the first year was 66 per cent, and last year it was below 33 per cent - on average, both on average - do you put all that down to Iraq?

TONY BLAIR: It's difficult to judge but obviously it gets more difficult as you, as you go on as prime minister, that's for sure, but also Iraq has been a very divisive issue.

DAVID FROST: So that has been the major factor, you would say -

TONY BLAIR: Well I mean the thing is -

DAVID FROST: - in this decline of satisfaction or trust.

TONY BLAIR: Yeah. I mean I've just been out for two days in the country round the north west and Yorkshire and what is interesting to me is that, yes Iraq is the shadow over our support - there's no doubt about that, there's no point in disputing that - but actually people do increasingly recognise the economy's stronger, there are more jobs, unemployment's down, the National Health Service is getting better, there's investment in our schools, there's extra numbers of police on the street.

So, you know, I think underneath whatever is the worry about Iraq, because I think people ask well do they have a plan to get through Iraq, I mean I think that's the thing that concerns people - and actually we do - I think that underneath that -

DAVID FROST: What - what really concerned people was saying - did they have a plan at the end of the war, that it seemed to be cobbled together afterwards - I think that was the thing. Not that you, you have a plan now, doubtless, but that the allies in general appeared not to have a plan immediately after the war.

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, but I would strongly dispute that. I mean -

DAVID FROST: You would.

TONY BLAIR: Yes, because the key issue for people, at the end of the war, was would we face a humanitarian disaster in Iraq. I mean if you remember at the time, the planning was all to deal with that - well we hadn't. What we, I've had -

DAVID FROST: ... oil wells burnt and things like that.

TONY BLAIR: Exactly. Now that's not what's happening. In fact if it weren't for the sabotage Iraqi oil production would be up beyond what it was, you know, before Saddam was, was removed from power. So, you know, when people say you didn't have a plan for Iraq, we actually had a plan for Iraq, we're carrying it through, however, the terrorism issue is very, very serious.

I mean there's no doubt that these groups of people, because of the very simple strategy they have, can do a lot of damage. They can blow up a pipeline, you know, there's thousands of kilometres of pipeline, they can blow it up. They can kill people who are involved in trying to rebuild power stations.

They can assassinate people who are engaged in the political process. But my response to that is that we shouldn't then lose heart or fade away in those circumstances, we should stand up to them and help the Iraqis go towards the democracy they all want to see.

DAVID FROST: In the Daily Mirror yesterday, Prime Minister, just to get this once and for all clear, you, you vowed to lead the Labour Party into the next election and you said "I am up for it, no shortage of desire, because I believe in what I'm doing. I do this job because I believe in what I am doing." Just quickly to just clarify some of that in my own head. You said you're -

TONY BLAIR: Congratulations in taking 15 minutes to get round to this, anyway.

DAVID FROST: Yes, yes. Looking at the clock. But the, just, just quickly through this, you've said you will stand at the next election, and if you win the next election, you've said you'll serve a full term. Is that right?

TONY BLAIR: It's exactly as I said to you last September.

DAVID FROST: Right, exactly the same.

TONY BLAIR: It is exactly the same. It always has been. Yes, I'm absolutely up for it, in the end the British people are the boss, they're the people that make the decision, and the reason I'm up for it is there's a lot more still to do.

DAVID FROST: One quote that is new since last September was you said, apparently to various friends and so on, that if you thought you were an electoral liability you would go.

TONY BLAIR: Well you've always got to have the support of your party but I believe I have that support. You've got to have the support of the people, and that's decided in an election. But, you know,

DAVID FROST: But how would you - how would you, take, here's an example. Yesterday's Telegraph said "voters prefer Brown to Blair". Now that theoretically suggests he'll see he's a liability and he'll go.

But then you look closer at the figures and you see that in fact 80 per cent of Labour voters want you to stay for a few years or many years - so that wasn't the reason. But how would you ever found out that you needed to go?

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, well that's a very good point, so let's just - we'll just carry on then.

DAVID FROST: [LAUGHS] But you don't rule out a fourth term?

TONY BLAIR: Look, let's make sure that the British people endorse us next time round. I mean, you know, if - the, the - the reason why I, sometimes people think I'm a bit unnaturally coy about this, is that what I can't stand, you know, if you, if you go down one path you get he's about to quit and if you go down the other path you get the headline I'm going on and on and on, which sounds -

DAVID FROST: Like Mrs T. But it goes without saying that whenever you do decide to go that you will endorse Gordon as your successor.

TONY BLAIR: Well, I mean again, these are decisions for the future but I've always made it clear the high regard I have for him. I mean it's been a great partnership, he's been a brilliant chancellor, he's delivered huge economic strength for this country and, you know, he's, he's a tremendous asset to the party - and to the country.

DAVID FROST: In that case you should, you should endorse him right now.

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, but let's just - I've given you enough headlines for one day, so let's get on - get on with the next bit.

DAVID FROST: All right, coming on to Europe. When do you think there will be a settlement that can be signed off in Dublin next month or so - do you think that that deal can be done between the countries by, by the time of the meeting of the heads of state and so on in Dublin?

TONY BLAIR: Well either by the time or at the time.

DAVID FROST: Or at the time.

TONY BLAIR: Yeah. Yes I do, yes.

DAVID FROST: Yeah, but one way or another.

TONY BLAIR: I mean we've got to make sure that we get our -

DAVID FROST: Red lines.

TONY BLAIR: - yeah, then - it's really - it's a question of making sure that it is very clear that the settlement on the European constitutional treaty is one that protects absolutely our right to set our own tax rates, to conduct our foreign policy, our defence, our social security system and so on. And we need this treaty in order to make Europe work more effectively now it's 25 not 15 members, but we should make sure that it is genuinely cooperation between nations not some federal super state and we should make sure also that having concluded this treaty that's the last word for the foreseeable future.

DAVID FROST: And when would you foresee being able to hold the referendum?

TONY BLAIR: I don't - we just can't tell at the moment. We said that we should have parliamentary process, you know, as, as, when that comes, that will come before we have a referendum so obviously it depends, to an extent, how long that takes. I mean I just can't tell at the moment.

DAVID FROST: But it looks as though in a third term, if re-elected, if you get through the constitution vote, you somehow win that one, there won't be time for, for the single currency for, for a while after that.

TONY BLAIR: Well the single currency just depends on the economic conditions being right. You know, at the moment our economy has probably been the strongest of any of the major countries in the world in the last few years - so it's quite difficult to say to people it's, there is a compelling economic case to go into the euro now. On the other hand I think that long term it is in Britain's interest to be part of the single currency but that's got to be determined according to the economic tests that we've set out.

I think the main thing, frankly, short term, is to make the case for Britain being a leading player in Europe. I mean one thing that is very clear to me in these European elections is that the, you know, absolutely deep-dyed Euro sceptic case, ie: get Britain out of Europe, has gained some ground and it's very important that responsible politicians counter that. So the idea that we should divorce ourselves from the main political union in the world today, with whom we do 60 per cent of our economic trade, is absurd. And yet I think it's important we are out there countering that.

And I, one of the reasons why I changed my mind on the referendum and in the end said look if we've got, we're going to have this treaty, you know, we've got to give the people the final say, is that we've just got to make that case. There's got to be, I think, a real sense at some point of this country coming to a decision and saying yes we want to be part of Europe.

DAVID FROST: Yes but people say remember, I remember a few months ago you and Gordon were going to go out on a big crusade for Europe and so on, but you never really did that.

TONY BLAIR: No, but that was around the euro, and what we said is look if we're going to go into the single currency, we're going to have to go out and fight the case. Now the truth is the reason why, as I was saying earlier, it's been difficult to make the case for immediate entry to the euro, is I don't actually know many people even in business who are pro euro who are saying that now. We should keep the option open, we'd be very foolish to rule it out -

DAVID FROST: Right.

TONY BLAIR: - but I mean that's the reason why that campaign didn't take place.

DAVID FROST: And - but it's obviously got to take place before the constitution.

TONY BLAIR: Absolutely. I mean there's no ducking that because that's going to be there - there will be a constitution - if we get the agreement there'll be a constitution, there'll be a referendum, and this will be the moment at which I hope that all sensible, serious people who believe this country's future lies as part of the European Union come together and make the case properly.

DAVID FROST: Robin Cook said here - you remember him, right? He said "Britain's share of foreign investment has collapsed. It's barely a quarter of what it was before the euro." Is that true?

TONY BLAIR: I don't think so.

DAVID FROST: It was news to me too but -

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, but I mean - no.

DAVID FROST: You don't think - you think he's slipped up there?

TONY BLAIR: Well I don't - I mean I'd have to see the full context of what he says but I don't think that's true. I mean we're still basically the number one destination for foreign inward investment.

Although it is true, obviously, you know, that there is a risk long term of us losing direct investment, particularly if the eurozone were to pick up, if their economies were to start to reform, if they were to become a more dynamic economic zone, then, then, I think long term that there could be risks to our inward investment but for the moment I think our position's reasonably secure.

DAVID FROST: What about this situation with the postal vote and so on. I mean can you, do you think, guarantee that this printing problem - what is it seven million envelopes are behind, or whatever - will be sorted out so that everyone gets a chance to vote and every vote gets counted. Can you guarantee that today, or not yet?

TONY BLAIR: Well I'm assured that this is the case, so it, it better be. And I think, to be fair, I mean I think 75 per cent of the ballot papers are now out. Now it's the next few days we've got to get the rest of it done and there's been some printing problems but people are working round the clock to make sure that that happens.

DAVID FROST: And we have big headlines again today that you're really going to take action on obesity. What can you do about it? Not personally, because you're slim and -

TONY BLAIR: I - I mean - being prime minister I should keep within the bounds of government policy but I just want to say one thing at the beginning, I do think we can get this issue in the wrong place.

I mean the primary responsibility for people looking after themselves is with people. I mean I, I can't, you know I'm responsible for many things but I can't make people slimmer. What I can do is encourage, for example, sport in schools, which we're expanding.

We can give information to people, we can try and get the food industry and others to behave responsibly but ultimately I think it's quite important we don't end up thinking that the government can somehow determine whether people are large or small.

DAVID FROST: Exactly. We'll just leap in there to get Gillian's headlines.

[NEWS]

DAVID FROST: Well we're almost at the end of our time but people all said when you came to power that you wanted first of all to show that Labour could be a stable economic force and so on as manager, and you've done that, and we've talked earlier on about how elusive the EU is proving in terms of the single currency, you also wanted to reform public services - how much of that, people would say the jury is out, I suppose on that - how, how far do you think you've got on that?

TONY BLAIR: I think we've, we've got a considerable way but there's a long way still to go. But I don't think there's any doubt at all that the National Health Service is getting better. I think that you can see the investment in our schools but we've still got a lot to do on the vocational side.

There are record numbers of police, you know the criminal justice system is being reformed but there's still an enormous amount to do, there's no doubt about that.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.


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