Politics - Blairites celebrate to soon

For a brief spell, those at No 10 could allow themselves to let down their guard and show what they

Escape was close at hand - only to elude them. For a brief 12-hour spell, as Americans began to vote, some around Tony Blair let down their guard. From the early afternoon on 2 November until the early hours of the following day, it seemed that a possible John Kerry presidency was breathing new enthusiasm into Downing Street. For months, Labour ministers and advisers had observed a self-denying ordinance. They had refused to say what they really thought of George W Bush, because the Prime Minister had told them they could not, and because they worked on the assumption that they would have to deal with another four years of Republican rule.

As Kerry appeared to catch up, and as early indications on polling day suggested that he might even win, the relief was palpable. The record turnout pointed towards only one result. One senior Blairite looked up the odds on an internet booking service - and put some money on. Another claimed that a Kerry victory would give Blair his "Get Out of Jail Free card". Congratulatory text messages were exchanged among advisers.

The mood also seemed to infect Alastair Campbell, once all-powerful and now in search of outlets to explain why he and his boss behaved in the way they did towards Bush. The basis for Campbell's retrospective self-justification of the uncritical closeness of the relationship with the president, and of the studied neutrality during the US campaign, was the assumption that Bush would be given a second term. The subtext of Campbell's message was this: only when it seemed that Bush might go could Blair let it be known that he had never really liked him in the first place.

Watching the early predictions at the American embassy party in London, the optimism was contagious. Among the large UK government contingent that was present, some were careful to hedge their bets; others less so. Aides turned pundits for the evening, trying to work out Kerry's choices for secretary of state and national security adviser. They discussed how many "hits" Blair would have to take - of the "two down, one to go" variety - before he could reap the rewards of a new Democratic dawn. They worked through the timings of a prime ministerial phone call to Kerry and the difficulties of dealing with a lame-duck Bush in the important two months ahead of the elections planned in Iraq.

None of this was to be. The chronology of the evening was a repeat of last time around - hope turning to uncertainty, turning to a frightening wake-up call. The reality this time around appears even worse than it was in 2000.

Whatever reservations there might be about voting procedures, it will be harder to accuse Bush of stealing this election, especially as this time he achieved an overall majority of ordinary votes cast. The swing to the Republicans in both houses of Congress, the likelihood of further right-wing appointments to the Supreme Court, and the fact that he has no further election to fight will give a reborn Bush regime unbridled powers.

All this makes Blair's task more unpleasant than ever. His first reaction, at Prime Minister's Questions, was to make light of it, causing mirth by congratulating, with a studied pause . . . Hamid Karzai, for winning the Afghan elections - while making clear that he would await the result of the US vote.

Blair's aides now face a series of dilemmas in managing Bush Mk II. The PM will clutch at straws. He will point out that Bush could now finally get to grips with the Israeli-Palestinian problem and try to bring Ariel Sharon into line. There is no evidence to suggest that any such move will be any more sincere than during the first term, but Blair will use this line to offset the inevitable fury in his own ranks at the continuation of a relationship that, in domestic political terms, has become poisonous. A Kerry victory might have brought short-term problems - it would have made Blair more isolated on Iraq - but it would have provided considerable electoral benefits. A Bush victory now ensures continuity in all its manifestations. The pictures of Blair standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his American friend, coupled with the accusation that those pictures might, if only at the margins, have helped the President, will be damaging when Britons go to the polls. Blair now has a race against time to persuade Bush to return the many favours he has done for him, and lie low on issues such as Iran, at least until after the British election.

As ever, Bush is likely to listen politely, and then do as he pleases. The only consolation for Blairites is the realisation that if, or when, Gordon Brown finally takes over, he too may have to deal with the same president. Brown's regret over the defeat of his friend John Kerry, with whom he has spoken frequently but confidentially, will not be tactical. It will be sincere and painful.