Politics - John Kampfner reveals Operation Bush Distance

The PM has at last grasped the extent of Bush's unpopularity in the UK; and his officials are alarme

The next time Downing Street lets it be known that Tony Blair is sanguine about a second term for George W Bush, do not believe a word of it. The Prime Minister wants a transfer of power at the White House not because he admires John Kerry - he has yet to meet him - but because he has finally understood what others have been telling him for a long time: association with Bush is bad for his own political health.

For all the denials, Operation Bush Distance, which began in the spring, has been gathering pace. Look back over the past few months and compare the language with what went before. From Bush's inauguration in January 2001, through the events of 9/11, and on to the run-up to Iraq and the events that ensued, Blair's people talked up the links. Telephone calls were briefed heavily. Meetings were projected as close and personal. "Tony and George" talked often; so did "David" (Manning, the PM's former foreign policy aide) with "Condi" (Rice, US national security adviser); so did "Jack" (Straw) with "Colin" (Powell).

Now, with the Republican clan converging on New York for their convention, it is the differences with the US administration that are stressed. Britain's condemnation of Israel's construction of new settlements in the West Bank contrasts with Washington's green light for the same. And journalists are briefed that Blair will make a major speech on the global environment criticising the Americans over Kyoto.

"There is no question he would rather Kerry win than Bush," says one senior government member. "Working with the neo-cons has been a millstone for him." Asked which policies were causing the problems, he replied: "Just about everything in sight." Of growing concern at the moment is US policy on Iran. The increasingly belligerent talk from the Bush camp fills Whitehall officials with dread.

Blair, according to aides, only now understands the extent of Bush's unpopularity in the UK. "We've been trying to tell him that even Tory voters detest Bush," says one official.

Between now and the presidential election on 2 November, Blair will continue to instruct his ministers to maintain fastidious neutrality. He reminds aides of the problems that John Major got into after helping a Republican dirty tricks campaign against Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign.

There is a big difference, however, between dirty tricks and political support. So clear was the order, that Labour's contingent at the Democratic convention in Boston a month ago was described as unofficial or "semi-official". They returned with warnings that links between the two parties - which reached their peak during the Blair-Clinton love-ins of 1996-97 - are now weak.

Shortly after that trip, Peter Hain went to New York and Washington, DC, after getting the nod from Blair to meet Kerry's top people. Although Blair's popularity remains strong on the American right, among staunch Democrats it is not what it was. Many have expressed bewilderment at the Prime Minister's attitude, suggesting he confuses good working government-to-government relations with a desperation to keep on Bush's side, come what may.

Now Blair's calculation is simple. If Bush wins, the advantage would be familiarity coupled with a hope of a slightly more pragmatic foreign policy in a second term. The disadvantage would be guilt by association and a continued focus on Iraq in the minds of the public.

If Kerry wins, the embarrassment for Blair would be acute, but probably brief. The demise of Bush, Jose MarIa Aznar and maybe John Howard, in Australia's elections this year or next, would leave Blair with only Silvio Berlusconi of Italy as a soulmate. And yet, once the laughs have been had at his expense, he would be dealing with an American president who, in a manner closer to Clinton, would "speak European". Kerry is already talking of "internationalising" the "war on terror"; although he backs the war in Iraq (anything else would be electoral suicide in swing states), his approach to the new phase of the occupation would at least sound different.

Blair would make a step change and try to embrace Kerry just as he did Bush. Downing Street is working from the assumption that its "special relationship" would be at least as strong with a US administration less antipathetic to British voters. Blair works from the assumption that Kerry would sway towards him, partly because of the Democrat-Labour connection, partly because it is Britain. Kerry has made clear, however, that he has competing priorities. One is repairing relations with France and Germany; another is to focus more on Asia and Latin America.

Still, whatever the challenges a new incumbent would pose, Blair's US policy was at the heart of the failure of his Iraq policy. He suspects that only by a change of players can he really, to use his own term, move on.