Blair: 'I will remain shoulder to shoulder with George Bush'

Andrew Grice, Political Editor, talks exclusively to the beleaguered Prime Minister
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Indy Politics

A defiant Tony Blair said yesterday that he would not change course over Iraq and rejected the growing demands by Labour MPs for him to distance himself from President George Bush.

In his first interview since the crisis over the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners caused speculation that he might stand down, the beleaguered Prime Minister told The Independent he was "frustrated" that Iraq was overshadowing what he called the Government's significant achievements on the economy, jobs and public services. He slapped down calls for him to "put some light" between Britain and the US, insisting that it would be exactly the wrong time to do so.

He dismissed "this idea that at the time of maximum difficulty you start messing around your main ally", adding: "I am afraid that is not what we are going to do.

"The most important thing is that we work with our coalition partners and sort it out, get the security situation right, so the Iraqis themselves are capable of doing the security, which is what they want to do. If we succeed in that, that is a huge bonus for the security not just of the region but of the world."

Mr Blair also rejected pressure from Labour MPs for him to show tangible gains from his close relationship with President Bush. He said that he would not "get into the business of seeing the relationship with America as a list of gains you have made. That is not the way I look at it."

He insisted the US was still committed to the "road map" for the Middle East peace process and raised the prospect of an American-backed aid plan for Africa being approved when Britain holds the chairmanship of the G8 nations next year.

The Prime Minister admitted the present crisis meant the Government needed to restate the case for its actions from first principles, a point pressed on him by several ministers at yesterday's meeting of the Cabinet. "We have got to deal with it," he said. "We have got to make sure the country ends up a better country as a result of removing Saddam. You have always got to bring people back to the basic choice.

"I just wish the Iraqi voices were heard more. I think people misunderstand what the Iraqis actually say to us. Of course they want the coalition forces to leave when it is right to do so, but they do not want the country to be left at the mercy of religious fanatics, former Saddam loyalists or terrorists. What they want is the legitimate transfer of sovereignty after 30 June, which we will do."

The Prime Minister said that if Iraqis were asked whether they wanted Saddam to return to power, "they would think you had gone crazy". He went on: "The most important thing is that we work with our coalition partners and sort it out, get the security situation in the right place so that the Iraqis themselves are capable of doing the security.

"I know we are going through a difficult time. People should just take a step back and look at the fundamentals. Despite the appalling stuff about prisoner abuse, we are trying with the majority of the Iraqi people to get the country on its feet. The people who are attacking coalition forces and assassinating construction and aid workers are trying to stop us. We have just got to make sure we prevail and succeed. It is in the interests of the world that we do. The alternative to that is not one we should contemplate." But the Prime Minister admitted the problems in Iraq were crowding out the domestic political agenda in the run up to the 10 June European and local elections.

"It is frustrating, but it is understandable. It is politics," he said. He dismissed speculation that he might stand down as "froth" and said nothing had changed since he expressed his desire to serve a full third term as if Labour wins the next general election. "I think I should get on with the job. I enjoy doing it."

During a visit to the West Midlands, Mr Blair said he was happy to escape the Westminster bubble. "Every time you come out and meet people in the real world and see what their problems are, you realise how much you can do to deal with them and why it is right to carry on," he said.

The first half of Mr Blair's day was spent in the hothouse of Downing Street. His morning was dominated by routine meetings with his aides as he prepared for the Cabinet's weekly session, where there was a brief discussion on Iraq. The main business was a presentation by David Blunkett of his draft five-year plan for the Home Office.

After Cabinet, Mr Blair was briefed by No 10 and Home Office officials about anti-social behaviour, knowing it would be on the agenda when he visited the West Midlands. A hasty bit of lunch was followed by a drive to RAF Northolt and Mr Blair was flown to Coventry Airport.

The Prime Minister started at the plush conference room at Jaguar's Browns Lane plant in Coventry, and met 60 employers, trade unionists and young people, divided into six groups, who had been discussing skills training as part of Labour's "Big Conversation" listening exercise to influence the party's election manifesto.

Mr Blair worked the room, joining in the conversation at each table and greeting the participants with his usual bonhomie. "How you doing?" and "What do you reckon?" he asked.

Although Labour officials deny the people were hand-picked, they were on their best behaviour. "How are you?" asked one well-wisher sympathetically. "I am fine," Mr Blair said. No one mentioned the war.

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