Blair hopes to put substance before sex on US trip

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The Independent Online
A battle between sex and substance will be fought out between the media, President Bill Clinton and Tony Blair when the Prime Minister flies out to Washington this evening. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on the build-up to the three-day visit.

While the President and Mr Blair will attempt to concentrate on the big picture issues of Iraq, Northern Ireland, the Asia "meltdown", work and welfare, education and health, the Monica Lewinsky question will be lurking - and is bound to be put when the two men stage a joint press conference at the White House on Friday.

At one London briefing on the visit this week, the question was even raised by the Financial Times, and in an exchange with a BBC correspondent yesterday, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "I fear the BBC has decided that Lewinsky is the story, but we will have to live with that."

When the BBC man pressed the question again, he was told that if he asked Mr Blair about Ms Lewinsky on Friday: "The answer will be that Monica, whatever her name is, I don't think will figure in his answer. He will refer to the excellent job that the President is doing and the excellent judgement of the American people in appearing to put this stuff in its proper perspective."

In a London briefing with American correspondents on Monday, Mr Blair said such distractions were "part of modern political life", but it was greatly to the President's credit that he had not been distracted.

Urging the media to have a sense of perspective and balance, Mr Blair added that there was a difference between the interest, "sometimes an interest bordering on an obsession", with people's personal lives and issues of huge importance to the world.

Asked about Iraq - one such issue, high on the Washington talks agenda - Mr Blair said the objective was to make sure that Saddam Hussein complied with United Nations resolutions on inspection. "This is not a situation," he said, "in which the UN inspectors have been there trying to find evidence of evil intent on the part of Saddam Hussein. The evidence is there.

"They have uncovered masses and masses of weapons: 48 Scud missiles; 38,000 chemical weapons munitions; 3,000 tonnes of chemical weapon precursors; a large biological weapons manufacturing plant.

"These are actual things that they have uncovered and stopped, which is the reason why we are so intent on bringing him back into line and allowing the inspectors back in to do their work in the future, because obviously our concern is that if we don't do that, then he may be developing further weapons of mass destruction."

Against that background, one of the issues raised at yesterday's No10 briefing was whether Cherie Booth would be taking a hairdresser with her. The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "I honestly am not aware of her follicular arrangements."