Foreign Secretary discusses US-UK relations following BP oil spill , Afghanistan & Europe

Foreign Secretary answers questions on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon William Hague

Andrew Marr: Right then let’s turn straight to the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who is in Darlington, good morning Foreign Secretary. Could I start with …

Foreign Secretary William Hague: Good morning.

AM: … the relationship with President Obama and BP? There has been a great deal of worry in this country that BP’s share price has been driven further and further down by some of the rhetoric in Washington. Do you think that episode is now closed?

WH: Yes I think so. Relations between the UK and the US are excellent, just listening to Louis Susman the US Ambassador you can see that relations are extremely good between our countries and I think the, the conversation between the President and the Prime Minister last night said it all. The President said that he recognised this is a multinational, global company and that the American reaction would not be driven by issues of national identity, that there would be no seeking to undermine the value of BP. The Prime Minister pointed out that the importance of BP to, to the United States and the United Kingdom as well as other countries so I think the tone of that conversation sets a good example for everybody else to follow.

AM: Why did it take so long though, I mean, it seemed to take quite a long time, it seemed to take Boris Johnson bouncing on to the stage and talking about it? The Government’s initial response to this was incredibly guarded and, may be, over diplomatic.

WH: Well look we’re not going to react to every newspaper headline, we’re not going to be that sort of Government. The truth of the matter is, the substance of relations between the UK and the US are outstanding at every level, again as we’ve just been saying, that what’s really important here is the work that BP are doing and that US officials are doing to mitigate the consequences however they can of this oil, this catastrophic oil leak and BP’s efforts to contain it. That’s the really important thing that’s going on and it’s much better for the focus to be on those things. We’re not going to get in to a panic every time there is a newspaper headline that would be …

AM: None, none …

WH: … the style of the last Government. We will deal with these things in a calm and orderly way which has been done in the Prime Minister’s phone call yesterday.

AM: Well there’s nothing calm or orderly that happened to BP recently, I mean its share price has crashed, a lot of people’s pensions in this country are tied up with BP’s fortunes so are we going to see no more of talk about BP having to consult American politicians before it decides on its dividend policy? No more talk about part of BP being nationalised or hived off in the States, no more special finds so that they can subsidise other parts of the oil industry, is, is all of that gone?

WH: Well BP will decide on its own dividend of course it is but, let’s be clear, it has a big task in front of it and it’s had to work hard in recent weeks. It does have to do its utmost to stop this oil spill, to, to deal with it satisfactorily on a permanent basis and to everything it possibly can to mitigate the consequences as I’ve said. And the UK Government are, we’re playing our part in offering the large quantities of chemical dispersants to the United States in order to try to help with this. So it’s got a huge task in front of it, let’s not, let’s not underestimate that in any way, but I think the President made the United States’ position very clear; they’re not seeking, the United States, to undermine the value of BP and they know full well that there are many thousands of people working for BP in the United States and there are almost as many America shareholders of BP as there are British shareholders and that’s well understood on both sides of the Atlantic.

AM: You’ve been in Afghanistan recently, you’ve been in Afghanistan many times and I wonder now whether you think that British policy and, indeed you were very guarded and careful about what you said about British policy in Afghanistan under the last Government, but can you give us now a, perhaps, franker assessment of what’s gone wrong and what needs to be done better?

WH: Well there are things that need to be done better. We need to look after our troops and that’s why the Prime Minister announced when he was there a couple of days ago the doubling of the Operational Allowance. We need to make sure they’ve got all the possible equipment, that’s why there is more work going on on combating the improvised explosive devices that cause most of our casualties. We need to put more development aid in to Afghanistan so the work of our troops is followed up even more successfully by the necessary economic and development work going in behind them to create permanent stability in the areas that they have dealt with.

So we have embarked on all of those things in our first few weeks in office, working with our international partners. And, of course, the big missing ingredient is the political stability as well as improving security on the ground. That requires a stronger Afghan state, I’ll be going to the Kabul conference next month, again working with our international partners and the Afghan Government on that. So all of these things need attending to, more training as well is very important for the Afghan national security forces so we’re, we’re looking at all of those things …

AM: Okay …

WH: … and doing our best to improve all of those things.

AM: … do you think it’s proper for the top two men in the Ministry of Defence to read in this morning’s newspapers they’re being given the boot?

WH: Well their terms have already been extended let’s be, let’s be clear about this. They have, their terms have been extended to cover the arrival of a new Government. They are highly valued public servants and that is a clear recognition of that, in the case of the Chief of the Defence Staff his term would now naturally come to an end in early 2011. What the Defence Secretary was saying in his interview was that there is some natural point when we’ve done the Strategic Defence and Security Review and before embarking on the years of work that will then follow on from that, there will be a natural point which those people whose terms have already been extended then have their successors put in place and the Prime Minister will announce that at the appropriate time.

AM: Is there a, is there a view though that the Ministry of Defence needed a fresh start, that perhaps some of the procurement and other issues and the spending issues, had not been dealt with as well as they might have been? Is that, that seems to be the implication of what’s being said.

WH: Well if that is the case, and I think that, when you look at the extent of the, the procurement entered in to by the Ministry of Defence far beyond the budget that was, that was meant to be available, clearly one might conclude it hadn’t been run as well as it might have been, but I place the responsibility for that and so do my colleagues, the Defence Ministers, on the previous Government, not on the people working for the Ministry of Defence. That’s a, that’s the political responsibility of the previous Government.

So all that is happening here as I say is there, there will be a natural time to have a change of personnel, but it’s Ministers who must take responsibility both for what hap, what went wrong in the last Government and what we are now hopefully going to do right going forward in the nex, in this Government.

AM: But you believe, having been out there as I say many times, that our mission in Afghanistan was pretty drastically and dangerously under resourced, pretty much from the beginning.

WH: It clearly was under resourced at the beginning. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. It’s in much better shape now with regard to resources and equipment and we’re improving that further in the ways that I have described. Now we have to give it the time and the necessary support to succeed, recognising however, and going back to my earlier point, there is no total military solution to the situation in Afghanistan. It needs a political process as well, the political surge that the Prime Minister spoke about on his visit. That’s why we worked so closely with the Karzai Government, that’s why we’re paying such attention to what the Ministers are doing to improve their own capabilities in Afghanistan.

AM: Okay.

WH: That’s very important as well.

AM: Let me ask you about Europe. There’s a new row building up about a proposal that the European Commission should have first sight of all member state’s budgets, including our budget, look across it, decide what they like, what they don’t like even ahead of Parliament. Will you allow that to happen?

WH: No, we’re not, that’s not a proposal that we can support. We’ve made that, the Prime Minister, Chancellor and I have all made that very clear. The British budget must be presented to the British Parliament and that is the position that we will argue for and that’s the position we will maintain.

AM: But are you able to veto it because as I understand it it’s under this system of voting which means that however cross you are about it, you may not be able to stop it going through?

WH: Well the, I think the discussions on this have some way to go, but as you can gather our position is pretty categorical, our position is very clear on this so we have to see what ideas are going to be produced within the European Union on this. We are working ‘cause we’ve got, again, good relations in the, in the new Government with our partners around Europe. So we will come to this in due course, but our position will be pretty trenchant that a budget, the national budget of this country can only be presented in the, the draft budget can only be presented initially to the British Parliament and we follow very strongly about that, be in no doubt about that.

AM: And that’s going to be something that David Cameron will raise on Thursday and will be prepared to veto and insist on if it comes to that?

WH: Well as I say the, the proposals on this are still being discussed, are still being put together, so I don’t want to react definitively to something …

AM: Okay, okay.

WH: … that isn’t yet on the table. But yeah, it, will it come up at the European Council on Thursday in some early and some embryonic form? Very probably yes.

AM: More generally, there is something slightly strange and to some people dare I say even mildly comic about Nick Clegg and yourself, that double act, one of, you know, a German speaking, Dutch speaking Euro enthusiast standing next to a Yorkshire speaking strong Euro sceptic. How are you going to steer the coalition’s policy over Europe given that you disagree about so much of it?

WH: Actually I, I think a lot of agreement has happened naturally because of the events of recent years. It was not difficult to agree in our coalition negotiations that the, that the Government, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Government, would oppose any further transfer of power or new competences or sovereignty from Britain to the European Union. It was not difficult to agree that we would not join the Euro or propose joining the Euro in the lifetime of this Parliament, that we would pass our referendum lock proposal so that any future transfer of power …

AM: Yes, yes …

WH: … must be subject to a referendum. All of that was pretty easy to agree …

AM: … okay, just, just on that …

WH: … so I don’t think there’s the difficulty you’re looking for there Andrew.

AM: … just on that, do you think the Euro Bloc is going to sustain?

WH: Well I hope so actually, you may be surprised to hear me say that as someone who’s always of course been against this country joining the Euro, but it’s in our natural interests for those who do join the Euro …

AM: Right.

WH: … to be okay, to have a healthy Euro Zone …

AM: You’re, you’re …

WH: … so I very much hope so. Does it have great difficulties, well yes it does …

AM: … yeah.

WH: … but we’re not going to do anything to make those difficulties worse.

AM: Okay, you don’t have a huge budget in, in Whitehall terms at the Foreign Office, but nonetheless you will be being asked for cuts. How and where are you going to find cuts? I mean are we going to go through a phase where we no longer have these grand Embassies and these big cars and so on? Can you do diplomacy much more economically or cheaply than you’ve done in the past?

WH: There will be ways of doing more for less, yeah that’s what we’ve got to look for. It does not involve shrinking our global diplomatic network. Britain has got to maintain a global presence, you know, the world is going to become probably more dangerous rather than less dangerous in the next twenty years and the expansion of our trade and prosperity relies …

AM: Yeah, so what you can you do, what can you do?

WH: … on having a global network of contacts.

AM: What can you do?

WH: Well there will be, we’re looking at what we can do. There will be things we can do for instance where different parts of the British Government have got different offices in the same place. You know, and until quite recently they’ve continued to do that. The Foreign Office building an Embassy and the Department for International Development building a separate office even in the same city. That has happened in parts of Africa. So there will undoubtedly be things that we can do more efficiently …

AM: All right.

WH: … in the Foreign Office and in the whole overseas representation of the British Government, just like there will be things across all the domestic departments as well.

AM: Foreign Secretary thank you very much indeed for joining us and we’ll welcome you in to the studio …

WH: Thank you.

AM: … I hope before too long. Thank you.

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Published 13 June 2010