Watch out, Tony, you've got a rival!

Observations on special relationships

Tony Blair can't have George Bush all to himself. He may have wooed the US president with fish and chips in a Sedgefield pub, but he is about to face a rival for Dubbya's affections. On 13 December, a new leader will take charge of Canada, the US's biggest trading partner - and Paul Martin has a lot in common with Bush. Martin also made his millions in business and rose to power with the help of daddy and his friends. And Martin will also take charge without having won an election.

Not that Martin needed to bother with votes at all, never mind recounts. When the current prime minister, Jean Chretien, steps down after ten years, Martin, his successor as Liberal leader, can wait until November 2005 to go to the polls. No wonder it's being called a coronation.

The Canadian Liberal Party appeals to the psyche of a fiscally cautious but socially progressive country. Here is a party that plays down the deficit but allows gay marriage, that promotes trade with the US but won't invade Iraq.

Yet Martin may not be the kind of Liberal Canadians expect. Chretien is a liberal centrist who muses about smoking pot in retirement, and his view may be gauged by his admission that he has stayed in office for the past three years simply to block Martin's ascent. As the owner of Canada Steamship Lines (CSL), Martin showed a hard-headed neoliberalism. Despite the company's patriotic name, he removed the maple leaf flag from his ships and registered them in Liberia in 1992. This allowed him to avoid Canadian taxes and environmental regulations, and replace unionised Canadian crew members with Filipinos at a tenth of the cost. A tanker commissioned in 1995 and named after his wife was not built in Canada's declining east coast shipyards but in Shanghai. And last year, by which time CSL was registered in Barbados, the company avoided an estimated $7m in Canadian taxes - an amount that dwarfs the $125,000 fine it recently received for releasing a big oil slick off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Martin's company interests have now passed to his sons. But can he really separate those interests from his political decisions? As the Canadian journalist Marci McDonald points out: "With cargo contracts from Indonesia to Colombia . . . CSL could claim a stake in virtually every major decision confronting the next government, from international trade talks to energy policy." Like the Texas oilman who runs the US, Martin may struggle to put to the back of his mind that environmental initiatives would damage the family business. Why support the Kyoto Protocol when your ships carry coal to Ontario's smog-producing power plants?

Martin's first priority will be to heal the rift with the US caused by Canada's refusal to commit troops to Iraq. He has already placated the White House by supporting its so-called "Star Wars" missile defence plan, and now he talks more generally about forging new relations with the Bush administration. As Blair knows, the US does not do equal-footing partnerships. Perhaps that worries neither man, and Blair is hoping that his friend George truly prefers fish and chips to maple syrup.