America - How toxic George hurts his pal Tony

The London connection - If Bush falls, Downing Street fears, more damaging details about the UK's r

In the Prime Minister's office, there was embarrassment on the morning after. Many of Tony Blair's advisers had stayed up to watch the presidential debates, fearing that George W Bush would cite their man in defence of his foreign policy and, by inference, his candidacy. In the first encounter, each candidate mentioned Blair once. Second time around, Bush referred to him twice, to counter John Kerry's argument that America had few friends in the world. "I know how these people think," Bush declared. "I meet with them all the time. I talk to Tony Blair all the time. I talk to Silvio Berlusconi. They're not going to follow an American president who says, 'Follow me into a mistake.' Our plan is working. We're going to make elections. And Iraq is going to be free, and America will be better off for it."

Bush loses nothing by invoking Blair's name. The reality of Blair post-Iraq has yet to hit even those Americans who take an interest in affairs overseas. Many are still wedded to the PM eulogised in Congress for standing shoulder to shoulder with their man after 11 September 2001. His cult status is reflected in a number of websites, the market leader being www.thankyoutony.com. The actual electoral advantage to Bush is perhaps minimal, but as he showed four years ago he will do whatever it takes to eke out that extra vote.

For Blair, the association does immense damage. The two most commonly used adjectives in Downing Street in the weeks before the 2 November vote are "poisonous" and "toxic". The problem now for Blair is that everything Bush does, anything he requests, is seen through this prism - most recently the request to redeploy British troops in Iraq's American zone to free up US forces for a reinforced assault on Fallujah.

It is all, officials complain, terribly unfair. Imagine, one minister put it to me, that the request had been made by a President Kerry or by the UN. Would anyone have objected? Mission creep and other military concerns would have been raised, but the debate, officials insist, would have been conducted on a more even keel. The problem for Blair and his ministers is that it is not up to others to prove that the US request was politically motivated. The government now has to prove that it wasn't. "We've put ourselves in the position of having to show that our forces are not going to deliver Bush a single extra vote over the next fortnight," said a minister. "And everyone knows that's impossible."

So far everything that could have gone wrong for Blair in Iraq has. The absence of weapons of mass destruction, the new link with terrorism that had not existed before, the upsurge in fighting, the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay were followed by the kidnapping and killing of Kenneth Bigley. But so far Britain has avoided the one remaining calamity - a sharp increase in its military fatalities. That is why the military leaked to the press the prospect of a movement of forces into the Sunni triangle. Blair's office was not pleased - it wanted the decision announced a few days later as a fait accompli. Rarely in the recent history of the British armed forces can the disdain of senior officers towards their political masters have been so open as it is now. What exercises them more than anything is the Blair-Bush relationship.

Blair, according to aides, has only in recent months finally appreciated the extent to which the association has damaged him. A state of full denial has given way to partial denial. He still believes that any public dispute with Bush is damaging, and is convinced that Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative Party, has miscalculated by belatedly picking a fight with the Americans over the war. Others around the Prime Minister are not so sure.

So who exactly does Blair want to win? And who would serve his interests best? It infuriates many Labour backbenchers that anyone even needs to ask the question.

The Blair case for Bush is that he knows exactly how he operates. In policy terms, the Prime Minister's Gladstonian interventionism and the neoconservatism of the presidential set have converged in what is euphemistically termed the "transformation and democratisation" agenda for the Middle East. This familiarity is coupled with a hope of a more pragmatic foreign policy during a second term: particularly a hope - and it is nothing more - that, shorn of the exigencies of re-election, the president will re-engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This issue has become talismanic for the Labour movement. For Blair, it has been exceptionally painful. His declaration in his 2002 party conference speech that final status talks would begin by the end of that year took everyone by surprise, not least the protagonists. Each time Blair believed he had persuaded Bush to make progress on the road map, he would be let down. One of the PM's biggest diplomatic humiliations was his appearance at the White House in April - a day after Bush and Ariel Sharon had in effect torn up 50 years of conventional Middle East diplomacy.

Since that excruciating encounter, Blair has kept his public contacts with Bush to a minimum. Such is the frantic campaigning schedule that the president would not have had much time for him anyway, but Blair allowed himself to be persuaded by some around him that a little distance would do him no harm. The Prime Minister has still not returned to Congress to pick up the medal conferred on him during the "Baghdad bounce" in May 2003.

To date, all the way through the election campaign, the assumption in Downing Street, the Foreign Office and at the British embassy in Washington, DC has been that a Bush victory is extremely likely and that nothing should be done to jeopardise the relationship. Official contacts with the Kerry camp have been frowned upon. When Peter Hain went to see Kerry's people in mid-August, at his own instigation but with Blair's approval, he was told to be as discreet as possible.

At the Democratic National Convention in Boston the official Liberal Democrat delegation was larger than Labour's. Blair has still not met Kerry - the senator let it be known that he did not have time for him last time around - but contacts have been made behind the scenes. Sir David Manning, Blair's former foreign policy chief and now ambassador in the US, has been doing what his predecessor, Sir Christopher Meyer, did in the run-up to the 2000 elections - schmoozing the challenger. Blair has met John Edwards, the vice-presidential candidate, and was comfortable with him. One of his ministers describes Edwards as "new Labour through and through - brilliant on presentation".

The public view in Downing Street is that, no matter who wins, the Prime Minister will take his customary seat at the president's right hand and that, in policy terms, little will change. Kerry will almost certainly not wish to antagonise the Democrats' strong Jewish vote by chastising Sharon over settlements or pushing him into talks with the Palestinians. He may seek an early means of countering charges of being soft on security, either domestically or internationally. Iran is the most obvious target. Kerry's foreign policy, while still ill-defined, appears not unlike Blair's pre-9/11 incarnation: tough multilateralism. In other words, he will seek to work with the United Nations and to repair relations with the French, the Germans and others. Blair would be comfortable with that.

In the short term, a Kerry victory would be extremely awkward. The "two down, one to go" jokes would be at Blair's expense (such is their ideological confusion and political despair that some Blairites complain privately that John Howard's victory in Australia has been under-reported in the British media).

Once the laughs had been had, Blair would have an American president to deal with who, in a manner closer to Bill Clinton, would "speak European". Kerry is already talking of internationalising the "war on terror" and the war in Iraq. His inauguration would coincide with the planned Iraqi elections - two new regimes marking a fresh start.

That fresh start, even if more in image than in deed, would rub off favourably in London, four months before a third set of elections. That is the sanguine view. There is a more alarmist one doing the rounds in Whitehall, that scores will be settled, that there is more pain to endure. The paper trail is still incomplete. There is still more to be uncovered over the decisions which led to war. Outgoing administration members would do what it takes to ensure personal exoneration. Some around Bush who did not particularly trust Blair might yield to temptation. Some around Kerry who have not appreciated Blair's approach might like to assert their new authority. Within weeks, that fresh start might not seem so fresh.

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