A little tiff on the tarmac

Observations on the special relationship

Somewhere in Whitehall a British official clearly believes that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold. It was 6pm on a chilly Friday evening at Teesside International Airport. The state visit was over; President Bush was up in Air Force One, bound for Washington. All that remained of his "bubble" (as the entourage that envelops a president on tour is known) was the White House press corps - of which I was a temporary part - a few aides and some tired officials from the embassy.

That day, Tony Blair had stated that he did not think the alliance with America should be assessed as if it were a scorecard. "We're not standing by the US because we have to, but because we want to," the PM said. "The alliance is not about payback."

But not everyone in Britain seemed to agree, and it was on the tarmac that these dissenters apparently decided to make their stand: the security waiver that is agreed around the world for the White House press corps had been cancelled. Usually journalists accompanying a US president are taken straight to their plane, without passport check or customs clearance, let alone a security frisk. But at Teesside we had to line up and be checked.

It was only our bodies, not our bags, that required a scan. "Wait while I put my gun in my bag," boomed the man in front of me, a radio reporter with a voice that spoke of decades on air. He turned to two watching US officials: "Am I on my own on this one, or does anyone else think this is completely ridiculous?" One official nodded, and added quietly: "This is ridiculous."

As the one Briton among the all-American cast, I had to grin as the inevitable "this never happened in Putin's Russia" comments followed. And yet my American colleagues were not entirely joking when they chorused: "Maybe Bush should have given way on Guantanamo Bay." After all, the Teesside frisking was not the first prickle of tension between visitors and hosts. That morning, we had had to file through Heathrow like ordinary passengers to catch our flight north - a far cry from the ten minutes taken from touchdown at Heathrow to fast lane on the M4 the previous Tuesday.

So was all this a fit of pique from on high because Blair got nothing from the state visit beyond the status of "closest friend"? Some of my American colleagues suspected it was. But perhaps we should see the frisking in a broader context: we are the small and rather hopeless country of Bill Bryson's pen. For three days, our Marble Arch hotel failed to pull off its wake-up calls, hardly the toughest of tests. By the last night in London, the White House corrs had formed teams to wake each other up. Even so, one star ended up having to get a coach to Teesside.

Alec Russell is the Washington bureau chief of the Daily Telegraph