Thoughts on the Prime Minister's Appearance before the Liaison Committee
6 Feb 2007
Before the Prime Minister joined us, one of my colleagues said he felt like a member of the English cricket team, desperately hoping for a good result at the end of a disappointing tour. And it has indeed been the case that the Liaison committee has yet to hit the PM's wicket at these events.
If the Prime Minister had other things on his mind when he arrived, it never showed. He focussed on the questions for two and a half hours, and was positive and robust. There was no evidence of pre-occupation or distraction with other matters.
When he took off his jacket, it struck me that he might have put on some weight since he was last before us, but with Lent about to commence, there is an opportunity to put that right.
The Chairman - Alan Williams - confirmed that this would not be Tony Blair's last appearance before us; whenever he goes, he will give us what will be a "Legacy" session.

The session that I was involved came on first, and Tim Yeo led the team on climate change. It became clear to me that the Prime Minister was constrained by public opinion from taking the steps necessary to hit our carbon emission target. The fuel protest - over six years ago - was still fresh in his mind, and he was not minded to give motorists further cause to protest. He had the nerve to claim credit for the Congestion Charge in London - a policy he had been careful to distance himself from when Ken Livingstone introduced it; and he is cautious about doing much on aviation without international co-operation - which is I suspect some way off. Not much rejoicing from the Green Lobby on that exchange.

He gave a hint of a way through the controversy between his Government and the Catholic Church by suggesting a "consortium" approach. This seemed so obvious I was surprised no one had thought of that already.

The Prime Minister has, I fear, a tendency to talk at length unless he is interrupted. Our team was good about interrupting him before the flow became unstoppable, but in some of the other sessions he was given too much leeway. The more time he spends talking, the less time we have to ask him awkward questions.
On the other hand, he coped without notes for the whole time, handling some fairly detailed questions. He has an impressive ability to summarise a policy issue and then distil the reasons why he acted as he did.

As always, the session on foreign policy brought him out. To say he was unrepentant would be an understatement. Any Prime Minister should think very carefully before distancing this country from the USA, he told us; and our links with both Europe and America gave us leverage we would not otherwise enjoy. He is determined not to retreat to being a "soft" power (one that does not get engaged in fighting) and emphasises the importance he attaches to being a "hard" power.

The session on the EU Constitution seemed sensible; rather than trying to resurrect the constitution that had been voted down by the French and the Dutch, we should focus on the relatively minor changes necessary to cope with enlargement - voting numbers. He was awaiting detailed proposals from Angela Merkel. He would not be drawn on splitting the Home Office - I suspect this decision will be fudged. Nor did we draw him on the role of the state; yes, it would be different and it may commission rather than provide services. But whether the state would absorb a higher share of GDP than at the moment was not answered.

This was not probably the best session we have had with him - there were some dull sections. But given that the object is not for any side to win, but for us to find out what makes him tick, I was wiser by 11.30 than I was at 9.
 
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