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Jon Sopel interview
Interview on Sunday 16 July 2006

Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of these transcripts are used.

NB: These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from original scripts.
Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy.


Jon Sopel interviewed the Prime Minister
Jon Sopel interviewed the Prime Minister

Jon Sopel interviewed Tony Blair

JON SOPEL: Well I'm joined now by the Prime Minister. Prime Minister, we're meeting at a time of extreme crisis in the Middle East. You're supposedly the world's eight most powerful countries, what can you possibly do to alleviate the crisis?

TONY BLAIR: Well it's obviously the, the issue that's, that's dominating people's thoughts at the present time and we will try to find a common position which gives us the opportunity then of calming things down and trying to restore some, some peace and order to the situation, but it is extremely difficult, very, very worrying, because it links in not just with the issue to do with Israel and Palestine but also the issue to do with Israel and the Lebanon and of course it's got regional implications far beyond there.

JON SOPEL: Do you think Israel is using excessive force, as the Russians clearly think?

TONY BLAIR: You see I think - we've got to understand how this began with Israel, it began by Israeli soldiers being killed, some of the soldiers being kidnapped, rockets being fired from the Lebanon by Hizbollah, in to Israel, and though this is a difficult thing to say, I think it has to be said, I don't think anybody really believes that this is just about Hizbollah and Israel. We are very worried about the influence of both Syria and Iran in respect of this and the, the only way we are going to get a calming down, a cease fire, restraint shown on all sides is if we deal with the underlying conditions, which are the reason why this conflict between Israel and Hizbollah has come about.

JON SOPEL: Is there any sign of anything calming down yet?

TONY BLAIR: No, because I think it's extremely difficult, erm, obviously Israel feels itself under attack from Hizbollah, and then of course Israel retaliates and then of course the Lebanese situation becomes a lot more difficult and Lebanese democracy is, is fragile but important to, to support and sustain. But the only way we're going to get anything done in this situation, both in respect of what's happening in the Gaza and in respect of the Lebanon, is if we deal with the underlying causes that are giving rise to that. And that means one, that we sort out the situation between Israel and Palestine, when you can get back in to negotiating a two-state solution, within the dependent Palestinian state and secure Israel, and then secondly, that we remove the influence of Hizbollah to disrupt both the prospects in the Lebanon and the prospects in the wider region. Hizbollah, I'm afraid, encouraged and supported both by Syrian and Iran.

JON SOPEL: But the US seems to be standing back as far as Israel is concerned, saying well, you must do what you feel is right to do, that's not going to help the situation?

TONY BLAIR: I don't think America is, I mean I've just done a press conference with President Bush and he was very much calling for restraint and proportionality on the part of Israel, but you know, I'm not the Israeli Prime Minister, and neither is President Bush and neither is President Putin, we're all sitting here discussing this situation, but you've got under - see it from the point of view of the Israeli Prime Minister, he's got a situation where his soldiers have been killed, his soldiers have been taken hostage, there have been rockets fired at civilians from the southern part of Lebanon by Hizbollah, he's going to act.

JON SOPEL: (interjection) But haven't you and President Bush lost capital in the region, largely down to the war in Iraq?

TONY BLAIR: You see I don't accept this at all because I don't think the, - the interesting thing is the statements that have come out of Saudi Arabia and Jordon and Egypt. Now, if you look at those statements, they're making it absolutely clear, in respect of the Lebanon and the problem of Hizbollah, exactly where they think responsibility lies. Now, let just be quite clear about this because I think this is the, this is the time in a sense when issues in this region are being clarified and being put before us in a very acute and difficult way, but it's as well to face up to them.

The truth is, there is an arch of extremism right across that region, that wants to disrupt the process towards democracy and freedom, whether it's in Iraq or in Lebanon or down in the Palestinian territory, that arch of extremism is being supported by countries like Iran and Syria, and the only way we are going to get peace in this situation, we can condemn Israel, we can condemn, erm, those elements of the Palestinian authority that are reacting badly, we can do all the condemnation we like. If we don't resolve that basic issue and put ourselves as an international community firmly on the side of moderates, whether they're in the Lebanon, Palestine or Israel, then we will rue the consequences of it.

JON SOPEL: Let's move on to the G8 Summit and particularly maybe taking stock of what you achieved at Glynn Eagles last year and how it transfers this year. I mean, debt relief, good news in Africa; in terms of a trade deal, do you believe there's going to be any break-through at this summit?

TONY BLAIR: I think the most important thing on trade is whether we're able to get a further meeting between the, the key players. That's America, Europe, the G20 countries - that's Brazil and India and the others, whether we're able to get that in the next few days and I hope we will send a message from this meeting, we, we can't negotiate the trade deal here, but I hope we send a strong message from the leadership of the G8 and the, the other countries that, that come to the summit as well, that means Brazil and India and China and so on - that we want this trade deal to succeed and that we're all prepared to go further in order to make it succeed.

JON SOPEL: And on climate change, you've called it I think the greatest long term challenge facing the human race but you and other leaders aren't making enough progress on this?

TONY BLAIR: I think there are two things happening with this issue. The first is that there are those of us who passionately believe that climate change is happening, that it is dangerous, that it poses the biggest long-term threat to the security of our climate and we want an international framework agreed, to succeed when Kyoto's protocol expires in 2012, that will allow us to have a binding framework, within which the international community is going to join together, including America, including China and India, in order to try and develop the science and technology that slows all this down.

JON SOPEL: But isn't that the problem with timing because you've said recently: "I think it my greatest worry is that there is a mismatch between the timing of the international community in getting the right agreements in place and the absolute necessity of taking urgent action now." Everyone is different stages.

TONY BLAIR: Yes, that's true, but the second thing I was going to say is, as well as climate change, which is my preoccupation, all of us now have another preoccupation and that is energy security and there is a reason why energy policy including the debate about nuclear power, is so far back on the agenda of every single one of the countries, and that will dominate this summit, so both of those issues together, people's worry about rising energy prices, security of supply, how countries can protect themselves in an uncertain market, and climate change, those things are combining together to mean that this issue of how we get an international agreement is uppermost in our minds.

Now, the meeting that will count here is the meeting that is taking place in Mexico, in I think October, where arising out of Gleneagles last year, we'll have the Americans, the Chinese, the Indians, the Europeans, the main countries, the Brazilians and so on - trying to reach some sort of broad agreement.

JON SOPEL: The G8 is taking place here in St Petersburg, fabulous city, but should Russia be hosting a G8 when it's meant to be the democracies, given Russia's recent record?

TONY BLAIR: Well I think everyone will, will make its points and we'll have a discussion about democracy and human rights in respect of Russia tonight, but I still think the influence of Russia, when you're taking about a situation in the Middle East for example, or in climate change, I mean we need Russia as part of this deal.

JON SOPEL: Sure, Vice President Dick Cheney, he says "In many areas of civil society, from religion and the news media to advocacy groups and political parties, the government has unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people." Do you agree with that?

TONY BLAIR: Well we've all raised these concerns with the Russian authorities and you know, you know we've had our own issues to do with er ...

JON SOPEL: (interjection) And you went to the British Council, yes ...

TONY BLAIR: I went to the British Council yesterday, that is true. But I think that there is a, also a desire for all of us to work with Russia because of the importance of Russia. Now, we're talking about energy today and energy security - Russia is one of the biggest suppliers of energy in the world today; so for all the issues and we don't, you know shrink back from mentioning these at all to Russia, but for all these difficulties, it is also important that we have a good and strong relationship with Russia and I think you'll find that's so whether you're talking about European countries, or indeed America and look, you've got North Korea, where we've just managed to get an agreement in the UN Security Council, you've got Iran where we're trying to get agreement in the Security Council. You've got the Middle East situation, Israel-Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, these are important questions for us too.

JON SOPEL: Let's go to matters closer to home. The Home Office, John Reid said that in the face of mass migration, the Home Office wasn't "fit for purpose". Do you agree with that?

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, I think it's very obvious and indeed he - although it's often taken that John is the first Home Secretary to have said this, actually Charles Clarke said something very similar. The point that people are making is this - the danger of saying such a thing is that everyone then says, Oh, so you've had nine years in power and you've done nothing. Wrong - we've done a lot. You know there is a reason why crime has fallen, there is a reason why we've got record numbers of police, there is a reason why in many aspects, for example anti social behaviour legislation, we've made tremendous progress.

Asylum numbers are about I think a third or a quarter of what they were a few years ago, all of that is to the good. The point that John is making then and he's absolutely right is that we and every major country incidentally faces the same problem, we're not unique, we're not the only country debating immigration, law and order at the moment, all countries are. As a result of globalisation, as a result of mass migration, where you've got hundreds of millions of people on the move, all countries face a big problem.

JON SOPEL: But you made the point yourself, you have had nine years and of course problems change and the solutions to them will be different, but I mean it's what he said - the Home Office is inadequate in terms of its scope, it is inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management systems and processes - I mean that's - you've been at the helm all through this period.

TONY BLAIR: Listen, there have been tremendous improvements all the way through. Look, you take the foreign prisoner issue that did us such damage and was, was such an issue of public concern, the fact of the matter, as I keep pointing out to people, the only reason we know there's a problem is (interjection) ... is because the information has improved.

JON SOPEL: Of course, it's just that phrase - "not fit for purpose".

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, but I think,you see, that is a measure of the scale of change. What John Reid said about the British immigration system - is something you can say about virtually, I mean I don't want to denigrate other countries, but the fact is you could probably say that about any major European country, the major domestic issue in the United States of America at the moment is migration.

You know, that's why it's a huge issue for, for, for President Bush. If you take virtually any country round the world today, because people want you know the influx of people as tourists, as visitors, to work and so on, you have - I can't remember exactly what it is, I think it's round about twelve million people coming to Britain every year for good reasons, valid reasons. Now, with that twelve million will come people who are illegals or they're coming in for bad reasons. Working out how you manage to keep the, the, the intercourse of people going in a, in a way that improves the quality of your country and its economy, while stopping the illegals and those who come in for, for a bad purpose, is a huge task.

JON SOPEL: Of course, and yet you say you're keeping on pushing through reform, but in the last week alone, we've seen police mergers put in the deep freeze, ID cards delayed until who knows when, we've seen the Home Secretary and the Attorney General ...

TONY BLAIR: (interjection) The story on ID cards incidentally is wrong. Right. The story on police mergers is quite simply that having listened to the representations, frankly, I don't think it's the biggest issue facing us in the law and order system at the moment. But having listened to the representations, then we're going to take it at a, at a slower pace and make sure we take people with us but that's in a sense a side issue for the, for the main question. On identity cards, let me be an absolute - (fluffs) (laughs) ... tell you quite emphatically, our programme for identity cards will continue, and it will continue ...

JON SOPEL: (interjection) At the same pace?

TONY BLAIR: At the same pace, and it will continue as fast as ...

JON SOPEL: (interjection) So when will they be - when will we have them?

TONY BLAIR: Well, I think we've set out a timetable before which is - and the only reason we, we shifted a little bit back was because of the lateness of the parliamentary assent. But don't be under any doubt at all, this is what's so absurd about the Conservative position or parts of the media that oppose identity cards and yet say to us, track the illegals in the country - there is no way you're going to be able to track people who are in this country without identity cards.

JON SOPEL: But Prime Minister, it's about raising expectation. I mean the Home Secretary says there's a policy, there's a sentence for a paedophile that is unduly lenient, it raises expectations it's going to get tougher, the Attorney General then comes back and says, actually, it was perfectly right.

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, but again, if you want to have that explained, what the Home Secretary was saying was, if it is the case that someone who's committed that serious offence, is really going to be paroled in five or six years, the, the public would feel outrage. What the Attorney General pointed out, quite rightly, is that when you actually analyse what the judgement says, it's highly unlikely that this person is going to be released for years and years. And so in the end, look, these, these things come and go. The ...

JON SOPEL: (interjection) You've invoked Charles Clarke earlier a bit earlier saying that you, he said all these things before, then why did he say that he was worried that you've lost your sense of purpose and direction.

TONY BLAIR: Well I mean you're probably better putting that to Charles than to me but - look, I think that when you look back on the past erm, few months, whatever the, the various sort of brickbats being thrown at us, the interesting thing about the government is that on pensions, for example, where we put a long term frame work, literally for half a century in place, energy - where we've published an energy review that is really - gives us radical and green solutions for the future, or the Home Office proposals we'll put through the House of Commons in the next couple of weeks, National Health Service reform ...

JON SOPEL: Okay.

TONY BLAIR: ... Trust schools - actually the fact of the matter is, this government has got a very very strong sense of purpose and direction. Now there may be all the noises off that come and collide with that message getting across to people, but if you take policy, this is why I'm ultimately very confident about the ... Labour government.

JON SOPEL: (interjection) Well, I just wonder whether you consider this is another noises off because another area where people maybe feel that you have over-promised and under achieved, or under delivered, is on standards in public life. I mean has your government been "whiter than white"?

TONY BLAIR: Well I think the, the frank answer to that is that two things have happened. Of course we have had people who've got themselves in to difficulty, a Minister has been dismissed and we've had erm, huge problems obviously on this front - on the other hand, we've also introduced for the first time rules in relation to things like Party Funding for example - the only reason anyone knows anything about who gives to a political party today is because of the laws that we've introduced.

We've actually - I've given away probably more patronage, in fact I have - than any Prime Minister before me; so I think you know, you just kind of put that in the, the other side of the balance sheet on it, but these things are always difficult, particularly in politics today when you've got a, you know pretty tough media climate in which governments operate.

JON SOPEL: Well what was your ...

TONY BLAIR: (interjection) But you know, the issue to me in the end, I mean I'm not saying these things aren't important, I know you want to ask me about them, but for us as a government, the question is, are we getting the fundamentals right and I think on the economy, on public service reform, even on law and order (interjection) ... the only party that with the ideas is our party.

JON SOPEL: You say these are noises off, but what was your reaction for example when you heard that your friend Lord Levy had been arrested.

TONY BLAIR: Well look, the difficulty about this is I'm not going to comment on any of the specifics in relation to (interjection) ...

JON SOPEL: Yeah, but were you surprised, shocked dismayed.

TONY BLAIR: ... well, I mean, let's not go in to my reactions to it. The important ...

JON SOPEL: (interjection) Why not, I mean he's a close personal friend.

TONY BLAIR: I know, because I think the important thing is that if the police are conducing an enquiry, just let them get on and conduct it. There is one thing I would say to you however, because it's important people understand that nobody in the Labour Party to my knowledge, has sold on us or sold peerages. And the fact that it's sometimes excluded from the public's mind in relation to this debate, is that there are places in the House of Lords that are reserved for party nominees, for their party supporters.

Right. These are not honours, they're working peerages, reserved for Party supporters, Conservative supporters, Labour supporters, Liberal Democrat supporters. In my view, it is absurd to say, that if someone supports a political party financially - helps it pay its bills, run its election campaign, that they should be debarred from being party supporters for those places reserved specifically for party supporters.

JON SOPEL: But you understand, but you understand the importance of perception in politics, and perception is everything. There did seem to be a very clear link between giving loans, and you were talking about transparency a minute ago, loans are not in the least bit transparent, and being nominated for a peerage.

TONY BLAIR: Well, I don't - as I say I don't want to get in to the, the details of the particular case cos I think the police enquiry has got to you know, complete its, its work. However, I think you're absolutely right, perception is a real problem and obviously one of the, the biggest worry in this is that whilst the police enquiry goes on, effectively everyone gets tried, you know, in the media, which is not always the most objective and impartial on these issues.

JON SOPEL: Of course, okay, but you're not going to talk about the police enquiry, but why was there a loan strategy. I mean if you wanted transparency, you wanted donations, anything over five thousand pounds it should be declared. Why did you introduce a loans strategy at the last election?

TONY BLAIR: Well I think for the reason - look, I'm very happy to give explanations on this at the appropriate time, but I just, I think with this enquiry going on I'm, I'm best not to. But (interjection) ... Let me just make one ...

JON SOPEL: I just want to know, because loans aren't illegal, you can question the politics of them, but ...

TONY BLAIR: Exactly so ...

JON SOPEL: But I want to know why you were soliciting loans rather than donations.

TONY BLAIR: Well people can solicit loans or they can solicit gifts and frankly, there's, there's no real difference between the two, because each one ...

BOTH TOGETHER

JON SOPEL: One is transparent, the other is not.

TONY BLAIR: Yeah, but in, in the end, you know, whatever the rules are, it's important that we abide by them. Now if people want to change the rules in relation to party funding, fine. Although - I just do say this to people, that if and it may well be the case, that as a result of all this, we change all the rules in relation to party funding, probably what you'll find is the political parties coming in asking for more tax payers money and you know, political parties have got to raise money.

Now it's important that they raise it according to the rules and I don't believe incidentally, that anybody in the Labour Party has broken the rules in relation to this. But, I do think it is important just to emphasise for the public, that these particular nominations are for those places reserved for party supporters. They are not honours or you know, independent cross-bench peerages being offered to people.

JON SOPEL: Do you expect to be questioned by the police in this.

TONY BLAIR: I've got nothing to say on that Jon, honestly. I, I really can't because if I start going in to the issues to do with the enquiry - let, let them get on with their work, I'm sure they'll do a perfectly good job the police, and you know, it's entirely up to them as to what they do.

JON SOPEL: Well let me go back a bit. I mean Lord Levy, are you happy that he continues as Labour Party fund raiser.

TONY BLAIR: Well I don't think you can assume, just because this certain things are alleged in the media that they're necessarily true. Erm, and you know, we have raised money for the Labour Party over the past few elections ...

JON SOPEL: So it's a yes ...

TONY BLAIR ... erm, and that has been done and done extremely well.

JON SOPEL: Is that a yes?

TON Y BLAIR: Yeah, but I mean, leave aside anything to do with the individuals concerned or the enquiry, I mean I know why you want to ask me and I'm not disputing that at all but at the moment, for very obvious reasons and in fairness to the individuals involved, I think the less I say about individuals, the better.

JON SOPEL: And, I mean I just want to, just - is he still going to carry on as your Middle East envoy, because some people will say this is a pretty crucial time for the Middle East and here you have your, you know your key person at Colindale Police Station in North West London?

TONY BLAIR: But he's, he's done a superb job in the Middle East erm, and I think if you were to talk to people out there you would realise the respect in which he's held.

JON SOPEL: Okay, let's talk about your Deputy Prime Minister. Why won't you order an investigation in to whether Mr Prescott has broken the ministerial code?

TONY BLAIR: Well, what is there to investigate exactly.

JON SOPEL: Well the allegations for example that he had meetings in the United States, alleged this morning, with the Chief Executive of the Anschutz Group, talking about whether the millennium dome should be turned in to a super-casino?

TONY BLAIR: You know the thing I really don't understand about this is, I mean there is an issue to do with, with whether the fact that I think John spent a couple of nights on the ranch, incidentally, after the contract had been signed for this particular venture around the dome. There was an issue as to whether that should have been registered or not and he is now registered and - erm, I find it absolutely - I honestly don't understand what people are saying in relation to the Anschutz Leisure Group.

This is a Group that is going, it has put together a five billion pound investment around the dome, it will create somewhere in the region of twenty thousand jobs over ten thousand houses, affordable houses in London, that whole area of London is going to be regenerated, why, why should we not want him to come and do this.

JON SOPEL: But Sir Alistair Graham says - the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, as you well know - it does seem to me that when these issues relate to a central aspect of government policy in terms of casinos, the future of the dome, planning issues like that, it would be much better to clear the air by invoking the procedure to ask Sir John Bourne to carry out an investigation.

TONY BLAIR: Look, let me just check my facts on this but my understanding is that the planning is done by the local council and the mayor, so I don't - I mean has anybody got any actual evidence that John has interfered in this process in an improper way. I haven't seen any. I mean I've seen hoards of newspaper allegations about something to do with cowboy boots and some belt or something, but I mean ...

JON SOPEL: So John Prescott, whiter than white?

TONY BLAIR: Well it's - you know, you're not going to put words in my mouth. I mean, the fact of the matter is, unless there is something that someone shows to be wrong, then I'm not going to take action. Look, I have taken action against government ministers in the past. There are ministers that have departed the government for various reasons, so I' m not afraid to do that.

But one thing I am pretty hesitant about and I hope you understand this as, as a Prime Minister, is having a sort of, you know, huge media avalanche of allegation made, and I'm then, just because of the avalanche of allegations, supposed to go and discipline someone when as I say, there is an issue which is to do with the stay at the ranch, as, as far as I'm aware, that's now been registered, and I don't really see what the evidence is that he's done anything improper. If he's meeting Mr Anschutz and the representatives of this organisation, who are going to have a massive regeneration of that part of London, why on earth not. I would expect him to do that, he's the, he's the relevant Minister for regeneration.

JON SOPEL: So, so in a word he stays on as Deputy Prime Minister. Acting Prime Minister during the summer - and as normal?

TONY BLAIR: Well, as normal is the right way of putting it isn't it. I mean the other thing you'd think from the media is that John hadn't been doing this in the previous summers. He's been doing it for, as far as I'm aware, nine years now. So I mean it's - look, in the end Jon, you've got to make up your mind, the public will make its mind.

These things get driven at you in today's politics, whether you like it or not, and as I say, you'll get these vast arrays of allegations made against this person and that person and there will be, you know, one scandal in inverted commas after another scandal, and all the rest of it, the key thing for the government is to have confidence in its programme and see it through because in the end that's what makes the difference.

JON SOPEL: And are you in the end game of your premiership?

TONY BLAIR: Am I in the end? End game ...

JON SOPEL: Is the end game coming for you?

TONY BLAIR: Well I've made it clear, I won't fight the next election, but I'm not going to erm, add to already the numerous rain forests that have been felled in speculating my er, my future because look, in the end for me, it's about getting on with the job and I am.

JON SOPEL: Okay, fine but it's just that you said to the British people at the last General Election that you were going to serve a full term. You looked them in the eye and said that's what you were going to do. You then went to speak to MPs after the local council elections and said you would give ample time. Now what does that mean in plain English?

TONY BLAIR: What it means in plain English is that you try to make sure that you manage the situation in the interests of the country, and of course in the interests of your own political party. But you know I'm not going to have another great bout of speculation, the important thing as I say, is to get on with the job and although I think there is a huge amount of focus in the media on this issue (interjection) ...

I actually, well you talk about the British people in this, I mean I'm out and about a fair amount and I think when I'm out and about they want to know about anti social behaviour, Health Service, their schools. They want to know about the economy, they'll be very concerned at the moment, they'd expect me to be working hard on the Middle East stuff and I think sometimes what, what you guys don't always realize is that when you're doing a job like this, you're flat out on it. You know, I mean I've dealt with overnight, three international issues and then had a meeting and a press conference with President Bush this morning.

I'm not sitting there you know obsessing the entire time about when the precise date is and all the rest of it, get on with the job, that's what the public want and we are. Because the interesting thing that none of you put to me in any interview I do is you guys, you know, you don't have a policy agenda for the future, you don't know where you're going with the country, because we do. And if you take the energy review that was published last week, most people thought that was a sensible balanced package for the future.

Now we're the only political party putting forward proposals like that and that's why I say to people, and I say this particularly to my own folk in the Labour Party, you know when you're reading all this stuff, whether it's about party funding or John Prescott or whatever, of course you're sitting there and you're getting nervous about it but actually, look at the fundamentals, on the fundamentals on who has the right policies for the country, there is one political party with serious policies and that's ours. And that's the most important thing. In the end, in politics, if you trust the people to make up their minds on the big issues, and I do.

JON SOPEL: So we come back to the G8 next year, you'll still be there as Prime Minister?

TONY BLAIR: I've made it clear all the way through, I carry on doing the job and so I look forward to next year's G8 of course, but er, in the end the most important thing is to do the job.

JON SOPEL: Prime Minister, thank you very much.

End of interview

Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of these transcripts are used.

NB:These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from original scripts.

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


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