Prime Minister defies criticism of foreign trips

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair will defy growing criticism that he is globetrotting at the expense of domestic problems by visiting Africa next month.

The Prime Minister will tour several countries on the continent during a brief Commons recess at the end of February.

Shortly afterwards, he will accompany the Queen to the Commonwealth heads of state summit in Brisbane, Australia. He will also attend European summits in the Spanish cities of Barcelona (15 to 17 March) and Seville (21 to 22 June) and a summit of leaders of G8 nations in Canada in June.

Mr Blair has also been invited to Washington in April for the Tartan Day celebration of Scottish culture but is unlikely to attend because of the domestic criticism of his apparent fondness for "pyjama diplomacy".

He returned on Tuesday from a five-day tour of south Asia, where he acted as a go-between in the military stand-off between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

In the Commons yesterday, the Conservatives mocked his bulging list of international commitments as they turned their fire on the railway crisis and the rate of violent crime.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, complained that Mr Blair was becoming "isolated from the general public" who, he said, were afraid to walk the streets at night.

He demanded: "Now that you are back home, shouldn't you stay home and get a grip?"

Mr Duncan Smith added: "I know the Prime Minister has been away for a long time, but while he has been away his transport policies have descended into farce."

Graham Brady, a Conservative front-bencher, ridiculed the Prime Minister with a challenge to consider the plight of his rail travelling constituents "during his visit to Britain".

Mr Blair, who looked tired, seized on Opposition taunting of a Labour MP who asked a question about the military operation in Afghanistan.

Mr Blair told his backbencher: "I was fascinated by the Conservative Party shouting at you for saying we should support the British troops in Afghanistan and what they are doing. Of course, this is part of the Conservative Party's new policy. They are against us being part of the security force in Afghanistan, they are against us being in Sierra Leone, they are against us being in Macedonia, they are against us being anywhere near India and Pakistan, they are against us being in Europe. It's the Howard Hughes school of diplomacy, but I don't think it's very effective."

Mr Blair's spokesman insisted last night that the Prime Minister's international commitments had not affected his performance on the domestic front. He said Mr Blair had been regularly briefed on events in Britain as he toured south Asia.

He said: "The Prime Minister has been on top of every issue since he has been away. What you are suggesting is that he shouldn't go abroad."

He added that Afghanistan was a prime example of the price paid at home when problems abroad were ignored. He asked: "Does anybody seriously suggest that it is in the interests of the international community to allow a conflict, a potential conflict, such as that between India and Pakistan, to go unchecked with all the consequences that that could have?"

"It is in the interests of this country to have the war against terrorism. It is in the interests of this country not to have a conflict between India and Pakistan."