Clinton to repeat Cabinet history

There is very little that is new under the sun, and yesterday's excited reports of President Bill Clinton addressing the Cabinet, and Baroness Thatcher being called in to advise Tony Blair were quickly put into proportion by the precedents.

Tony Benn said he had been surprised to read in the Sunday papers that the President's address to Cabinet next Thursday was the first time such a thing had happened for 180 years.

Having served as a cabinet minister in the Wilson and Callaghan administrations, Mr Benn said: "Everything is new now, of course, even calling people by their Christian names in Cabinet, which we did of course."

But on a point of fact, he said that President Richard Nixon had addressed Harold Wilson's Cabinet on 25 February 1969, and he had written about it in the volume of his diaries entitled Office without Power. In it, he had said: "We sat around the Cabinet table and Harold welcomed him formally. It was rather agreeable. Nixon said a word, how he was anxious that co-operation with Britain shouldn't only be about foreign policy; it should cover the whole range of domestic matters.

"He laid great emphasis on the current problems of youth ... and then we had a discussion." Mr Benn also told The Independent that he had had a number of phone calls yesterday, ''trying to get someone on the left to protest about Blair meeting Thatcher. But what people forget is that prime ministers and leaders of the opposition meet absolutely regularly and always have done".

Corroboration was delivered by Lord Callaghan, the former prime minister, who told BBC Radio 4's World this Weekend that, 11 years after he had left office, he had been called in to advise John Major soon after he became Prime Minister. He said it was common practice in the United States, too, where President Clinton had sought the advice of former presidents, Ford and Carter. "And it's not unknown in this country," he said.

"In exactly the same circumstances, John Major was elected in November 1990, and he had to go to a European heads of government meeting in Rome in December 1990 ...

"I had a call from Downing Street asking if I would go over and talk to him and I went over, I suppose, in exactly the same circumstances as now [with Baroness Thatcher being asked to discuss issues with Mr Blair in advance of last Friday's summit in Noordwijk].

"We had a substantial conversation about a number of issues, international and domestic, with a certain amount of gossip at the end. We talked about the people he would meet and how people get on and so on, and we discussed basic issues. It happens and it's eminently sensible to do it."

Lord Callaghan said he was very encouraged by what the new Labour government was doing. "I think it has created a new atmosphere," he said, "and I feel a new enthusiasm even in my old bones."

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