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United Kingdom
Prime Minister's Official Spokesman
Lobby Briefing
September 25, 2001
11:00 A.M. GMT

Koizumi Phonecall

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the Prime Minister would continue to have meetings today regarding the current situation. He was due to speak to Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi who was in Washington this afternoon. Mr Koizumi would be the last of the G8 Leaders to whom the Prime Minister had spoken since the events in the US on 11 September. The Prime Minister hoped to speak to the Japanese Prime Minister before his meeting with President Bush later today. He might also speak to other leaders.

Party Conference/Recall of Parliament/CHOGM

Asked the Prime Minister's view about the Party Conference, the PMOS said it was a fluid and developing situation. The Prime Minister's current thinking was that the Party Conference should run from Sunday lunchtime to Wednesday lunchtime, with a view to Parliament being recalled towards the end of next week - possibly for two days. The PMOS underlined that nothing had been finalised at this stage and pointed out that the Speaker would have to be happy with what was being proposed. He said everything was under review and added that it was not impossible for Parliament to be recalled before next week. Asked what might provoke an earlier recall, the PMOS said that that could happen if there was cause or need to do so. He cautioned the journalists against over-interpreting what he had said in terms of any timescale for a response. He was simply emphasising that nothing had been fixed at this stage.

Asked whether the Prime Minister expected to attend the Conference, the PMOS said that was the current intention. As things stood, the Prime Minister was due to address the Conference on Tuesday. Asked if the Prime Minister would be present at each day of the Conference, the PMOS said he hadn't seen his schedule. The Party Conference was a significant event in the political calendar and obviously handled by the Labour Party. Questioned further about the Prime Minister's movements, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister's diary was subject to change. Moreover, for obvious security reasons, it would not be entirely appropriate to brief on his movements too far in advance.

The PMOS advised journalists that were the Prime Minister not to go to CHOGM, the Deputy Prime Minister would go in his place. However, no final decision had been taken at this stage.

Middle East

Asked to 'clarify the apparent shift' in Government policy towards the Palestinian territories and the position of Yasser Arafat, the PMOS said that the Foreign Office had cleared up this matter yesterday. Through his visit to Iran, Jack Straw wanted to build the broadest possible consensus in the region. Geographically, Iran was a very important country in relation to Afghanistan. No one was pretending that there weren't difficulties in this relationship. However, it was significant that it was the first time a British Foreign Secretary had visited Iran for many years. We viewed that as progress and believed it should be seen as such. We acknowledged that some people would have strong views about Mr Straw's visit to the country, but we believed it important. The PMOS added that the Foreign Secretary would also be visiting Israel today. He was due to meet the Israeli Foreign Minister and it would obviously be good if he could meet Prime Minister Sharon as well. We were still in discussion with the Israelis about the programme including a meeting with Prime Minister Sharon. We would have to wait and see what happened.

Questioned further as to whether it was now the British Government's policy to refer to 'Palestine' rather than the 'Palestinian Territories' and to 'President Arafat' rather than 'Chairman Arafat', the PMOS repeated that the Foreign Office had made clear yesterday the position regarding language used. We usually referred to the areas as the 'Palestinian Authority' or the 'Palestinian Territories'. Asked if Jack Straw had made a mistake, the PMOS said that no offence had been intended at any juncture. What Mr Straw was in Iran to do - and what he was doing successfully - was to build a consensus in the region. He was underlining to all sides the need to reinvigorate the Middle East Peace Process and that the best way to do so was through dialogue. The PMOS repeated that Mr Straw was due to meet representatives of the Israeli Government this afternoon and tomorrow. Questioned as to whether the phraseology Mr Straw had used had been a mistake or deliberate, the PMOS reiterated that no offence had been intended through the use of language. Asked if he was implying that it had been the result of 'inexperience' on the part of the Foreign Secretary, the PMOS said that Mr Straw was doing an important job in the region in building an important coalition. His visit to Iran was significant and should be seen as such. We accepted that some people would have difficulties with the visit. Nevertheless, we felt it was entirely appropriate that he should go ahead with it. Asked whether the phraseology in question would be used again, the PMOS repeated the acknowledgement that the usual terminology was 'Palestinian Authority'. Put to him that had Mr Straw used the phrase 'Palestinian Authority' he might have caused offence in Iran by not describing it as 'Palestine', the PMOS said he had already explained the background to this matter. He repeated that this issue should not overshadow a very important visit to the region; to build a consensus around the actions taking place and the plans being discussed. It was significant the Prime Minister had spoken to the Iranian President last week and that a British Foreign Minister was visiting the country today. It was an important country in the region. Mr Straw would be underlining the need for everyone to do what they could to try to move the Middle East Peace Process forward. As the Prime Minister had made clear in his statement to the House recently, we regarded this as a very important part of the current discussions. Questioned repeatedly as to why he could not or would not say whether the terminology used had been an error or intentional, the PMOS said he was answering the questions in the way he was choosing to answer them. He repeated that no offence had been intended. We understood the situation facing the Israelis and the very real security issues they had to deal with. As the Foreign Secretary would be underlining to everyone, there was an opportunity to move the Middle East Peace Process forward. We would play our part in doing what we could to help achieve that.

Asked if Downing Street or the Foreign Office had apologised to the Israelis, the PMOS said we had already underlined that no offence had been intended through the use of those words, and he was doing so again. Asked whether it was a matter of indifference as to whether the Foreign Secretary met Shimon Peres or Prime Minister Sharon, the PMOS said Mr Straw would certainly meet Mr Peres. Discussions were ongoing as to whether he would also meet Prime Minister Sharon. We hoped they would. Asked when the Prime Minister had last spoken to Mr Sharon, the PMOS said they hadn't spoken since the summer break.

Asked whether the Foreign Secretary's visit to Iran was an indication that we no longer considered Iran a sponsor of the terrorist attacks in the US or a state which sponsored terrorism in general, the PMOS said that the discussions and investigations which had followed the atrocity pointed to the al-Qaida organisation and Osama Bin Laden as the prime suspects. That remained the position and was why the focus was currently on Afghanistan. He also pointed to the Iranian Government's strong condemnation of the attacks in the US. However, that was not to say that there weren't going to be issues and difficulties and areas which we would have to discuss with other countries. It should be seen as a sign of progress that we were now in a position where we could work through these issues through dialogue - and face to face dialogue at that.

Asked if we would agree with the suggestion that the Arab-Israeli conflict had contributed in some way to the growth in terrorism which was now a global problem, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had underlined in the House, it was important for everyone to do what they could to eliminate the causes of hatred throughout the world wherever they appeared. That was a statement of the obvious. Asked if the Prime Minister believed the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict had contributed to the events of 11 September, the PMOS said that it was certainly the case that where there were issues and difficulties around the world, we had to do whatever was in our power as democracies to try to resolve them.

Biological/Nuclear Attack

Asked the Government's response to the World Health Organisation's report on biological and chemical warfare, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had underlined on several occasions, there was no evidence of any specific threat to the UK. However, he had also pointed out that those who had committed the atrocities in the US had no moral compunction in taking innocent people's lives and would therefore have no restraint in using biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction were they to be in possession of them - which we were not aware they were. This fact underlined the need to act in the way we were on fighting terrorism.

In answer to further questions, the PMOS underlined that it was important for the media to act responsibly in reporting this issue. This was a serious situation and people were understandably concerned about it. Journalists had to ensure that their reporting was not too over the top. If Bin Laden's general hatred of the West was translated into "I'll Nuke the UK", people understandably would be very alarmed. There was no evidence of a specific threat to the UK and there was no reason why people shouldn't continue with their day to day business in the usual way.

Asked if the UK would follow the US's lead in grounding crop sprayers, the PMOS said he was not aware that was the case.

Ian Duncan Smith

Asked what the Prime Minister had thought of Ian Duncan Smith in light of their meeting yesterday, the PMOS said they had met on Privy Council terms and it would not be appropriate 'to give colour' to that. We welcomed the cross party support.

Asked if the Prime Minister had told Ian Duncan Smith and Charles Kennedy that he was seriously concerned terrorists would target London, the PMOS said the Prime Minister had made the general observation that the existence of individuals who had no compunction in taking their own lives - let alone others - meant that we were all at risk. He hadn't been saying anything more than that. He was underlining, as he had throughout, that this was not an act against the US - it was an act against all of us. The PMOS repeated that there was no evidence of a specific threat against the UK. Nevertheless, it was important for people to remain vigilant.

Economy

Asked if the Prime Minister had received any reports on possible effects the attacks in the US might have on the British economy, the PMOS said that this was something the Treasury was monitoring very closely, as you would expect. As the Chancellor had said, these were testing times for the global economy. Nevertheless it had shown itself to be resilient. Concerted action had been taken by banks around the world to cut rates. The fundamentals for the economy and growth were sound. The usual Treasury data would continue to be collected and fed into the system in the usual way. Growth forecasts and the like would continue to be dealt with in the usual way through the PBR. Asked if any special meetings would take place, the PMOS said he could not point to anything specific. He pointed out that the Prime Minister and Chancellor met all the time, as you would expect.

Cabinet/Government Business

Asked if the Cabinet had met last night, the PMOS said no. The Prime Minister had had dinner in Downing Street with some of the key Cabinet Ministers involved in the Government's public service delivery programme. Obviously the Prime Minister's time at the moment was dominated to a very large extent by the events following 11 September. That was quite right and was what everyone would expect. That said, there was a very big and important domestic agenda on which the Prime Minister continued to remain very focussed in terms of the whole public service reform and delivery agenda, including improvements to schools and hospitals. He pointed to today's announcement by Alan Milburn on NHS performance ratings for acute trusts. Last night's dinner had been scheduled for some time and was part of the ongoing discussion between the Prime Minister and key Ministers as to how we could continue to take the agenda forward.

Asked when the Cabinet had last met and when it was scheduled to meet again, the PMOS said the Cabinet had last met on 13 September. He did not rule out a further meeting shortly.

Intelligence

Asked when the US might publish its evidence linking Bin Laden to the attacks in New York and Washington, the PMOS said that discussion was continuing on this matter. As he had said yesterday, everyone was looking to be as open as possible. However, there were constraints on the publication of intelligence material, as you would expect.

END


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Crown copyright material reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO.