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News

Thursday 7 February 2008

Morning press briefing from 6 February 2008

Briefing from the Prime Minister’s Spokesman on: John McCain, Chilcot Report, President Sarkozy, Afghanistan, Northern Rock, Sadiq Khan and the Saudi Foreign Minister

John McCain

The Prime Minister’s Spokesman (PMS) began by informing Lobby that Senator John McCain would be meeting the Prime Minister later this week. Senator McCain was in London on Friday and had requested a meeting, which obviously the Prime Minister was happy to grant.

Asked if it was a private visit, the PMS replied that John McCain was passing through London and had requested a meeting with the Prime Minister, which of course the Prime Minister was happy to grant.

Asked when the Prime Minister last met Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister had not met them recently. Asked if he met either of them on his Washington visit, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister had not. He had met Bill Clinton, but not Hilary.

Asked if the Prime Minister had actually met Mr Obama, the PMS replied that he was not aware that they had met.

Asked if the Prime Minister had met John McCain before, the PMS replied that he did not think that they had met.

Put that John Major was seen to be "anti-Clinton" which seemed to be damaging to UK/US relation, and asked if the Prime Minister was not concerned that he might seem to be showing a preference in the American Presidential elections, the PMS replied that the Government’s position was that this was entirely a matter for the US people. We took no view on who should be the next American President, as you would expect. Senator McCain was a senior American politician, and it was not unusual when such people were in London and requested meetings that the Prime Minister and other Ministers met them.

Asked if the Prime Minister had met with Rudi Giuliani, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister did have a meeting with Rudi Giuliani in the autumn when he was in London.

Asked if the Prime Minister would have any problem meeting with Mr Obama, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister would be happy to meet any senior American figure, that was entirely normal.

Chilcot Report

The PMS informed Lobby that the Chilcot Report was received on Monday, and that the Prime Minister, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary had a meeting with the Chilcot Review team when they presented their report. The review team as well as Sir John Chilcot was made up of Lord Archer of Sandwell, Lord Hurd of Westwell, and Alan Beith MP. The Cabinet were briefed on the content of the Chilcot Review, and the proposed Government response yesterday morning, and yesterday afternoon, just after Lobby, the Prime Minister briefed the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Democrats.

President Sarkozy

In anticipation of the question, on the matter of President Sarkozy’s wedding, the PMS informed Lobby that the Prime Minister had written to the Sarkozys congratulating them on their wedding. But on matters related to the gift, the Prime Minister would prefer to keep that private.

Asked if there was any news of whether Madame Sarkozy would accompany the President on the State Visit, the PMS replied that these were really matters for the Palace and the President’s office to comment on.

Afghanistan

Asked if the fact that we were sending the biggest parachute regiment into Afghanistan signified a stepping up to a more aggressive profile, the PMS replied that these were all operational decisions for the Ministry of Defence. It was for them to decide exactly what the composition of the troops should be. Overall force numbers would remain around the same, as the Prime Minister signalled in December that they would do.

Asked if there was any more of a positive response coming from the Europeans for participating more in Afghanistan, the PMS replied that our position was that we wanted to see more burden sharing. There was a NATO summit coming up in the next few days where it was likely that Foreign Ministers would discuss the matter.

Asked for the Prime Minister’s view on this, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister’s view was as he said in December - he would like to see more burden sharing.

Asked how concerned the Prime Minister was with US/UK relations with the Afghan Government, the PMS replied that we would not accept the premise of the question. We fully supported the Afghan Government and continued to work with them.

Asked if the current position on Afghanistan could be described as at crisis point, the PMS replied that again he would not accept the premise of question. We had always said in relation to Afghanistan that this was a situation that would take time to resolve. It was not only a military issue, it was an economic development and political issue as well. And that was why the Prime Minister had set out a comprehensive long-term strategy for Afghanistan dealing with all those different strands, in a statement to the House in December.

Asked in terms of number today, would there be any increase or decrease, the PMS replied that his understanding was that it would keep the numbers roughly the same, around 7,800 troops.

Northern Rock

Asked if the Prime Minister was worried about job loses in Newcastle, the PMS replied that these were really matters for the Treasury to deal with. Negotiations were going on with bidders. The Treasury had always made clear that their objectives were to protect the interests of the taxpayer, savers and depositors, and wider financial stability.

Sadiq Khan

Asked if the Prime Minister was happy that a Minister of the Crown had close ties, all be it professional, with people connected to the 9/11 attacks and organisations that some believed should be banned, the PMS replied that Mr Khan was a Whip, and therefore part of the Government. In this case he was acting as a constituency MP in relation to, as we understood it, somebody he had known since childhood.

Asked about Jack Straw’s private office knowing that there were questions about an MP being bugged, and did the Prime Minister think there had been any failure on the part of the private office not informing the Minister, or was it a failure on the part of the Minister, the PMS replied that we would not be getting into that. Jack Straw made a statement to the House yesterday around 22:30, and the position was set out there.

Saudi Foreign Minister

Asked what the Prime Minister’s talks with the Saudi Foreign Minister would focus on, the PMS replied that he could say more after the meeting, but we anticipated the talks focusing on foreign policy issues, the Middle East peace process, the situation in Lebanon, and the situation in Iran.

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