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Blair's fear of a Bushwhacking

Virtually everyone in Government is desperate for John Kerry to take the White House - everyone except a conflicted Prime Minister

Andrew Rawnsley
Sunday April 11, 2004
The Observer

It is easy to visualise what George W. Bush hopes to gain when he welcomes the First Foreign Friend to the White House at the end of this week. Being able to show the American public that the British Prime Minister is still standing 'shoulder to shoulder' in Iraq may be some reassurance to President Bush's increasingly dubious electorate, half of whom, according to opinion polls, now think America should pull out its troops.

And Blair serves the campaign to re-elect Bush in a more broad way. The vote may be seven months away, but this year's contest for the presidency is already developing into a struggle as fierce and tightly fought as the hanging chad election in 2000. Every vote, especially swing vote, is likely to count. The lustre of Tony Blair may have faded in the eyes of many of his own public, but by a distance he remains the most popular and respected foreign leader in the United States. Any form of endorsement from Tony Blair will help George Bush to appeal to centrist American voters.

Which is why Democrats seethe every time that they see the Prime Minister embracing their Republican opponent. It has an undercutting effect on their attacks on George Bush as a clumsy unilateralist who has made a mess of American's relationship with the rest of the world.

Sophisticated Democrats can appreciate why the British Government has to be careful about being seen to take sides in a presidential election, but there was anger among the Democrats that the Prime Minister did not even congratulate John Kerry on winning the party nomination. Even that ritual courtesy was too much for the normally polite Mr Blair for fear of offending George Bush.

An American presidential election is usually a no-brainer for a Labour government. While maintaining a public stance of neutrality, it would be expected to be privately willing a victory for the Democrat's contender. And a Kerry victory is indeed what most people in the Government pray for. Though Mr Blair has banned his colleagues from voicing any preferences about the outcome of the contest, as well as forbidding them from crossing the Atlantic to provide any campaign help to their Democrat cousins, virtually all of the Government is quietly desperate for Senator Kerry to unseat George Bush.

When I sought the opinion of one of the most senior members of the Cabinet last week, he smiled in reply: 'We would work very well with John Kerry.' That's all he would say. That's all he really needed to say.

There are some anxieties about Senator Kerry. He has been making protectionist noises. That, it is hoped, would prove to be no more than campaign rhetoric once he got to the Oval Office. In any case, George Bush has demonstrated, over steel and agriculture, that he can throw aside free trade for crude protectionism when it suits his self-interest.

John Kerry's attitude to the war in Iraq is obviously problematic for Mr Blair. The Senator voted for the invasion, but has since thwacked the Bush administration for manipulating the intelligence and hyping the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, a precise echo of the attacks on the Prime Minister by his British critics. Senator Kerry's chances of winning the American election are likely to be improved if Iraq is consumed by violent chaos: the nightmare that Mr Blair most dreads.

Against that, the Government secretly agrees with a great deal of the Democrats' analysis of where the Bush administration has gone wrong in Iraq. When the Senator accuses the White House of failing to develop a coherent plan for post-invasion Iraq, he is only saying out loud what many Ministers and diplomats mutter in private. When Kerry criticises the Bush administration for losing friends and alienating potential allies, many people in the British Government nod and sigh in agreement. One of the tasks Mr Blair has set himself to achieve in Washington this week is to try to overcome the White House's reluctance to enhance the role of the United Nations.

One member of the Cabinet - one of the most pro-war members - tells me that he finds the Bush administration 'very, very difficult to deal with'. And why? 'Because they are simply so right-wing.'

Across a spectrum of global issues - the environment is a notable example - a Kerry presidency would be a much more comfortable partner for the Labour Government than the Bushies.

As for Number 10, many of Mr Blair's aides and advisers - I reckon a large majority of them - would be equally delighted if the American electorate turned Dubya into another one-term President like his father.

This reflects the political kinship with their natural Democrat allies across the Atlantic. The desire to see the burning of the Bush also derives from the raw calculation that his continued occupation of the White House is toxic for Tony Blair's reputation with much of his party and many of the public. Put bluntly, Blair's relationship with Bush has become a horrible embarrassment and a dire liability which damages the Prime Minister every time it is placed on public display.

Symbolic of that is the miserable saga of the Congressional Medal of Honour. When it was first announced, Number 10 was puffed with pride that Tony Blair had become the first British leader to receive the highest accolade America can bestow on a foreigner since Winston Churchill (posthumously) in 1969. Nearly a year later, the medal still awaits collection. I understand Mr Blair won't be picking it up this week, either. Pictures from Washington of President Bush pinning a medal on the chest of Tony Blair while Iraq convulses with killings and hostage-taking is absolutely not the image that Downing Street wants beamed back home.

Were Britain really the fifty-first state of America, it would vote overwhelmingly for Kerry. Opinion polls suggest the margin would be more than two to one against Bush. Kerry wins even among Conservative voters. And he is a landslide victor among Labour supporters.

The almost universal view within the Government is that the removal of George Bush as President would drain at least some of the pus from Mr Blair's wounded relationship with a large section of his own party and the public.

I say almost universal because the important exception to this view is the Prime Minister. While nearly all of his Cabinet and advisers believe that the defeat of George Bush would be an unalloyed benefit, the Prime Minister is much more conflicted.

I am sure he would try to be the first on the phone to congratulate John Kerry should he triumph in November. But how swift would President Kerry be to take that call? Might Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schr÷der get in first? Senator Kerry has indicated that he would make it a priority to rebuild American relations with Germany and France. Mr Blair could find that his was no longer the only bridge across the Atlantic. There would be competing French and German roads to the White House.

Preying even more heavily on the Blair mind is what the defeat of George Bush might portend for his own authority and prospects. He has always been an avid devotee of the momentum theory of politics. He especially believes that how America votes has a magnetic effect on British behaviour. The ejection of Bush would be widely interpreted as the rejection of the war, even by the country that led it. It could intimate Mr Blair's own political mortality.

Two of the prominent European supporters of the Iraq war, Spain's JosÚ Maria Aznar and the Prime Minister of Poland, are already goners. If George Bush was removed from the scene as well, the Prime Minister fears that it would leave him looking like an increasingly vulnerable and isolated figure.

According to one member of the Cabinet in whom the Prime Minister confides about these things, the prospect of a Bush defeat 'makes Tony very disturbed'.

Oh, where is a Third Way when Tony Blair really needs one? The Prime Minister would be best suited if John Kerry could somehow win the American presidency without George Bush losing it. That would be Tony Blair's ideal result - and the one outcome that simply can't happen.