How Blair made a deal with Bush

The PM has become a hostage to the US. His future depends on Americans keeping their promises

As the tanks in Kuwait moved to the front line, Tony Blair secured his position back home. The rebellion in the Commons was the biggest in parliamentary memory, but such are the times, that it was portrayed as a "victory" for the Prime Minister. The House of Commons had had its moment. It had used it well.

The default prediction is that a successful war will leave Blair either more powerful than ever or relatively unscathed. But the first will not happen. After the mistakes and miscalculations of the past months, he will no longer enjoy the hegemony of his early years. Our political system will be more robust for that. And even if the military operation goes "well", Blair will become a hostage to forces out of his control.

Senior diplomatic and government figures have told me that Blair struck an explicit deal with George W Bush in those desperate days leading up to war. Hours before the US president announced on 14 March that he was willing to publish the "road map" - a step-by-step process leading to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 - Blair's people told the White House the Prime Minister's very survival depended on it.

Bush had already gone reluctantly along, at least for a while, with Britain's frantic search for a second UN resolution. But the Blairites told their American counterparts that Palestine was just as important. Bush has talked before about a Palestinian state; this time, the Americans were told, he had to mean it. "If Bush reneges on the road map, Tony could be finished," one minister told me. Ranged against him, however, are two figures hostile to him and his vision of the world - Dick Cheney, the US vice-president, and Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister. The body language between Bush and Blair at their summit in the Azores was, according to one official, "correct". Nothing more.

These exchanges formed the backdrop for the most telling part of Blair's speech to the Commons on 18 March. "Partners are not servants, but neither are they rivals," he told MPs. The next passage was addressed to Europe, but Blair was actually talking about himself. "What Europe should have said last September to the United States is this: 'we understand your strategic anxiety over terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and we will help you meet it. We will mean what we say in any UN resolution we pass and will back it with action'. However, in return, Europe should have said: 'we ask two things of you: that the US should indeed choose the UN path and you should recognise the fundamental overriding importance of restarting the Middle East peace process, which we will hold you to'." He was admitting that while he had pressed Bush to deal with the Likudniks in Washington and Jerusalem, he had not pressed him hard enough.

It was a "tragedy", Blair told the Commons, the country and himself, that this had not happened. "I do not believe that there is any other issue with the same power to reunite the world community than progress on the issues of Israel and Palestine. Of course, there is cynicism about recent announcements, but the United States is now committed - and, I believe genuinely - to the road map for peace designed in consultation with the UN . . . and that should be part of a larger global agenda: on poverty and sustainable development; on democracy and human rights; and on the good governance of nations."

This broad commitment was instrumental in persuading Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, to stay on. Blair told her, as she searched her conscience, that progress in the Middle East would on this occasion be for real. Just as Blair took Bush at his word, so she took Blair at his. By the time Blair saw Robin Cook, his former foreign secretary was not for persuading. His is a less sanguine assessment of future US priorities. If Cook's view is correct, Blair will have won himself time but only stored up more trouble for himself further down the line. The anti-war movement in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the bulk of it at least, will now go quiet as "our boys" go into battle. "We will swallow very hard," one said, "and hope that our worst fears don't come true." But that silence may not last for long.

The day after his dignified resignation as Leader of the Commons and his devastating speech, Cook was basking in the congratulations. Wherever he walked, MPs from all parties slapped him on the back and shook his hand. This new show of friendship towards a man seen as prickly does not suggest he is spoiling for a fight. In fact, he has gone out of his way so far to avoid it, co-ordinating his decision to step down with Downing Street - so much so that he agreed to give his personal statement on the eve of Blair's speech. Had he made it minutes before Blair stood up, as was his right, he could have destroyed the Prime Minister's case ahead of the crucial vote. History could have turned on that.

Cook decided to quit while walking on the Norfolk Broads with his wife, Gaynor, a month ago. As the last hopes of preventing war evaporated he telephoned Jonathan Powell, Blair's chief of staff, on 12 March to warn him of his intention. The wooing operation - "suicide watch", they called it - began in earnest. In a matter of hours, Cook was contacted by Blair, Jack Straw, John Prescott and others to try to talk him out of it.

As Blair returned from the Azores, Cook made up his mind. He immediately began working on his resignation speech. That done, he appeared reconciled to life out of government, as he told friends: "I may not have been able to make peace in the world, but I have made peace with myself." The same could be said for Blair. When he saw Cook on 17 March, he came across as rueful but also resilient. Cook then discussed the management of his resignation with Alastair Campbell, with whom, surprisingly, he has always got on well. A deal was done. If No 10 refrained from briefing against him, he would avoid gratuitous attacks on Blair. If the spinners reverted to type, all bets would be off.

Talking of briefings against cabinet members past and present, what of Gordon Brown? The Chancellor's effusiveness for the Prime Minister's Iraq policy over the past couple of weeks has been noticed by both camps. He and Blair have started talking again one on one, and often. Brown was furious at Short's conduct. Nevertheless, it was he who persuaded Short to withdraw her threat to jump ship. While Cook has emerged strengthened from his decision, Short is a diminished figure. Meanwhile, the Chancellor has insulated himself from criticism. If war goes well, Brown will be one of many people Blair will have to thank. If it doesn't, he won't be open to accusations of disloyalty.

Bolstered by polls suggesting a rallying of support, Blair had in the final days ahead of war got over the worst. His low point had come the previous week when he was rounded on by a television audience, undermined by Jacques Chirac and dismissed as irrelevant by Donald Rumsfeld. But when the Campaign group began talking of a special conference to unseat him, many Labour MPs, even those strongly critical of him, saw they had hit a point of no return.

Blair acquitted himself well, first in his meeting with the PLP and then in the chamber. MPs did not probe the Prime Minister on the most damaging part of Cook's speech the previous night, when he said that the intelligence he had seen cast doubt on claims that Iraq had viable stocks of chemical and biological weapons. The "whipping" was varied. Cherie Blair provided soft talk; lawyers from the Lords were on hand to "help" with any doubts about the war's legality. From Blair down, ministers made themselves available for discussion. And there was the usual mix of patronage and threats. After the recent failures, the human resources side of the government's operation worked well.

Blair has dropped hints that he might need the Labour Party in future and that he will pay parliament more heed. Is this cynicism or conversion? The same question is being posed of Bush's commitment to the Middle East peace process.