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Blair's Spokesman Press Brief On Bush Visit


PRESS BRIEFING: 3.45PM TUESDAY 18 NOVEMBER 2003

PRESIDENT BUSH

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) informed journalists that, according to figures supplied by Scotland Yard, 5,123 officers would be on duty on Thursday. Fewer officers would be on duty on other days during the President's visit. Since some officers would also be serving on sequential days, the 14,000 figure which had been reported by the media clearly did not add up.

Asked how long the Prime Minister and President Bush would spend together in talks, the PMOS said that they would have around two-and-a-half hours' worth in total. They would begin Thursday with a bilateral session which would lead into a broader session with their officials. That would evolve into the joint press conference at the Foreign Office, following which they would have a working lunch and participate in an HIV/Aids event after that. In answer to further questions, the PMOS said that two-and-a-half hours was a substantial amount of time. He pointed out that the two leaders spoke on a weekly basis in any event, often by video conference, so it was not as it they were starting from first base.

Asked what issues would be discussed during their time together, the PMOS said that Iraq would obviously come up, as would the Middle East peace process and the region more broadly. They would also discuss economic matters, including trade, as well as foreign affairs issues. Clearly it would be a wide ranging discussion. As always, there would be some issues which they would want to discuss in more detail, while they would only allude to others as they continued to talk.

Asked if the issue of the Guantanamo Bay detainees would be raised, the PMOS said that detail discussions on this issue were ongoing and were being led on our side by the Attorney General. We expected those discussions to continue beyond this week. However, it was not impossible that the issue would be touched upon during the Prime Minister's meeting with the President. Asked if the Prime Minister was satisfied with the way the President had 'framed' the Guantanamo Bay issue in an interview on Sunday, the PMOS said that it was sometimes difficult in an interview to finish what you wanted to say. Obviously the President was fully aware of the various options that existed, and they remained as the Prime Minister had outlined in the House of Commons.

Asked about the discussion on the Middle East peace process, the PMOS said that the context for the President's views on the Middle East had been set out in a speech ten days ago, which was a useful framework from which to work.

Asked if there was complete agreement between the two leaders on a new strategy for Iraq, the PMOS said that they both welcomed the statement from the Iraq Governing Council (IGC) at the weekend regarding a timetable for progress. Clearly there was a shared agreement on the way forward to implement that.

Questioned as to whether the issue of US steel tariffs would be raised during the talks, the PMOS repeated that the two leaders would discuss trade matters, so it was entirely possible that they would touch on the issue in passing. He pointed out that these matters were being headed elsewhere, in addition to which the US had until 6 December to respond in any event, so this was not something that was going to be resolved immediately.

Asked whether the issue of Kyoto would be discussed, the PMOS said that we had no problem talking about Kyoto. We recognised that we started in a different place from the US on this issue. As the Prime Minister had spelled out consistently since Johannesburg, in his view Kyoto did not go far enough. He continued to believe that the way forward was through developing new technology.

Asked if he was indicating that he was not expecting breakthroughs on any of the issues on which we disagreed with the US, the PMOS said that the President's visit to the UK was not in the mould of the post-World War Two summits. Time had moved on since then. In the past, leaders had met up for discussions once a year, if they were lucky. The Prime Minister and the President spoke on a weekly basis either by phone or through video conferencing. They also met up more regularly. The visit this week was part of a continuing conversation. It was not a one-off event in which each side had to produce 'goodies' for the other. It was about evolving our understanding not only of each other's position, but also of the issues we faced together. It was important for people to recognise that we lived in a different era and that we should therefore be judged by different standards.

Asked if Downing Street considered it helpful for Mrs Blair to criticise the US for not signing up to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the eve of President Bush's visit, the PMOS said that he was not aware of Mrs Blair's comments. That said, the Government's position on the ICC was well known.

FOUNDATION HOSPITALS

Asked if it was really the case that the vote on Foundation Hospitals was so close that the Sports Minister had to be flown back from Australia to take part, the PMOS said that at this stage of the parliamentary session, it was normal practice for Ministers who were away on business to return to vote. It should therefore not come as a surprise to anyone that Mr Caborn would be returning to the UK. Asked how much it would cost to fly him back, the PMOS said he didn't know. He repeated that these sorts of events were not uncommon. Put to him that they were uncommon for Governments with landslide majorities, which would appear to suggest that the Government had lost control over a large part of its party, the PMOS reminded journalists that the vote had not yet taken place and it would not be of any particular use to anyone to pre-judge what might happen. The Government regarded Foundation Hospitals as an important issue, and it was entirely right for MPs to be in the Chamber to vote on the matter. Asked if the Government would consider it to be a confidence issue were it to lose the vote tomorrow, the PMOS said that it wasn't his policy to answer hypothetical questions. He preferred to deal with the realities in front of him. The Government had made no secret of the fact that Foundation Hospitals was an important issue and that was why it was treating it with all due seriousness.

MARGARET HODGE

Asked if the Prime Minister now regarded this whole issue closed following Margaret Hodge's statement last night, the PMOS said that Mrs Hodge remained a member of the Government and she retained the full confidence of the Prime Minister. Pressed as to whether the Prime Minister now regarded the matter as closed, the PMOS said that Mrs Hodge had made her statement.


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