In answer to questions about the European Constitution, the PMOS said that the position remained as he had set out this morning and last week. The stumbling block at the European Council in Brussels last December had been the issue of vote weighting. The Irish Presidency had been discussing the issue with their European partners and would present an update at the European Council later this week. It was up to them to make the judgement as to whether they thought the IGC could be concluded in the first half of this year. We had no intention of pre-empting their decision. We were relaxed about this matter. We were not among the group of countries who had been central to the breakdown of the talks last December. EU member states were fully aware of our position on the Constitution and our red lines. We would continue to pay a constructive role in the whole issue. Questioned further, the PMOS said that although the centre of gravity had been with us at Brussels last December on the red lines issue and the IGC, we recognised that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. We would hold every bit as firm to our position in future negotiations as we had in the past. Everyone was crystal clear about that.
Asked if Downing Street agreed with the No Campaign's assessment that there was no prospect of a referendum on the Euro before 2008, the PMOS said that the Chancellor had set out the position on the Euro in his Budget last week.
Asked when the appointment of the UK's new European Commissioner would be announced, the PMOS said he thought that we were some months away from an announcement. Asked if it was the Prime Minister's responsibility to decide whom to appoint, the PMOS said yes, in consultation with colleagues. Asked if the Prime Minister would dare to choose someone who was not popular with his colleagues, the PMOS said that it was clearly a slow afternoon for the Lobby. He had no intention of feeding any speculation that might itself have been feeding off other speculation.
Asked the Prime Minister's view of events in Israel in the last twenty-four hours, the PMOS said that what had happened was clearly a setback. He was obviously concerned that the situation did not escalate - hence the wide call for restraint. As the Foreign Secretary had underlined yesterday, we condemned the targeted assassination. As Northern Ireland had shown, a political solution was only possible if a violence-free space was created in order to allow dialogue to take place. It went without saying that holding talks against a backdrop of violence on both sides would not enable political progress to be made. Obviously that was not to suggest that these weren't very difficult issues. Clearly they were. Everyone knew what the prize was. Getting there was obviously a lot harder than wishing those ends. Asked if the Prime Minister thought that President Bush had not focussed as much as he could have done on the Middle East over the past year, the PMOS pointed out that it was the President who had set out the two-state solution and published the roadmap. These were obviously complex, difficult issues. People were continuing to work hard to try to find a way forward.
The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister would be in Belfast today. He would have lunch with the Taoiseach, following which there would be meetings with the parties - the DUP, SDLP, UUP, Alliance, PUP, Sinn Fein and UKUP. A press conference would take place later this afternoon.
The PMOS drew journalists' attention to a report today from Sir George Alberti, who was in charge of the Government's emergency care strategy. Sir George had presented an assessment of the NHS's performance during the winter months to the Health Secretary, John Reid. The report showed that this winter had been "a success story for the NHS". In acknowledging that, we wished to pay tribute to the outstanding work of NHS staff in making that happen. John Reid had also pointed out today that the fact that a record number of pensioners had had the flu jabs was also a major contributing factor.
Key Worker Housing Programme
The PMOS advised journalists that the Deputy Prime Minister, Charles Clarke and John Reid had launched the key worker housing programme today. The £690m funding for this scheme had been announced last year. Today's announcement was outlining details of how the scheme would work. This was an important part of our public service agenda aimed at retaining people and skills in frontline public services. Housing was obviously an important issue, particularly in areas where recruitment was difficult and housing costs were high.
Asked if the Prime Minister was confident of a breakthrough on the European Constitution at the European Council in Brussels later this week, the PMOS said that the position had not changed from yesterday and last week. The stumbling block at last December's European Council had been the issue of vote-weighting. The countries central to that had been France, Germany, Spain and Poland. The UK had not been one of them. The Irish Presidency had been having talks with its European partners, including lunch yesterday with President Chirac, to discuss how progress could be made. The Presidency was expected to present a report to the Council at the end of this week in terms of whether they considered it was worth pursuing a conclusion to the IGC during the first half of this year. We had always said that we were very relaxed about this issue. The British Government's position on the Constitution was well known. As the Prime Minister had said last December regarding our red lines, the centre of gravity had been with us in relation to the views of other countries at that Summit. Equally, as he had acknowledged at the time, nothing was agreed until everything was agreed - as, indeed, events in Brussels last December had shown.
Questioned as to why the Prime Minister was visiting Lisbon tomorrow, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister would be attending the memorial service for the victims of the Madrid bombings in Spain tomorrow and would therefore be in the region. Portugal was an important European ally. He hadn't had a one-to-one meeting with Prime Minister Barroso for several months, and it was thought to be mutually beneficial for both sides to meet in advance of the Brussels Summit.
Asked for how long the Prime Minister had been interested in beach volleyball in the light of the item in today's Telegraph Diary, the PMOS said that he had not turned his attention to newspaper diary gossip during the course of this morning.
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