The process is drearily familiar from the plots of countless tawdry novels. Opposites attract: two unlikely people begin a passionate affair. Friends all warn them that it cannot last. The friends are ignored as the lovers stand magnificently alone against an uncomprehending world. Then the first trace of an unfamiliar lipstick is found on a collar, and breezily explained away. Someone else’s earring is found in a suitcase after a business trip and laughed off as a colleague’s practical joke. But suspicions have been roused. Doubts creep in. Headaches are pleaded. What was once charming starts to irritate. Never glad confident morning again.
The improbable partnership of George Bush and Tony Blair, born when they shared toothpaste during their first meeting at Camp David and sealed in blood and victory in Iraq, is running into just this kind of trouble. Once they seemed inseparable, the Lone Ranger and Tonto of international affairs, or perhaps the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of the War on Terrorism. Their partnership stirred fading memories of Reagan and Thatcher, Roosevelt and Churchill as the Anglo-Saxons marched once more to battle.
It was never quite convincing. There was something embarrassingly token about that American gesture, allowing a British submarine to fire off a volley of (American-built) cruise missiles to help open the war against the Taleban. Even as Blair was brushing off the domestic taunts about being Bush’s poodle, the defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted with a bluntly casual honesty that America could handle everything in Iraq, irrespective of the British army, which was sent to war lacking desert boots and a change of camouflage clothing.
Still, it was felt in Downing Street and in the White House that the Brits mattered, that this was a country punching well above its weight in the global championships, a country that singlehandedly belied those neocon jibes about virile Americans being from Mars while the epicene Europeans limped in from Venus. But even in the assiduously cultivated personal relationship between Bush and Blair, with the friendly phone calls and touching gifts back and forth, there is a feeling that something has gone wrong.
The irritants are mounting, even as the political tie to Bush becomes an increasing political liability for Blair at home, enraging the Left in his own party and wrecking his grand hopes of playing a leading role in Europe. While there is still admiration in the US for Blair’s political courage, the Prime Minister is seen by Americans as failing to deliver. He could not concoct a form of words at the Berlin summit last weekend that would have secured some grudging Franco-German engagement with the Anglo-American mission in Iraq. He has no more troops to offer the overstretched Americans; the British army has run dry.
The pace at which the relationship is cooling parallels the dizzy declines of their respective opinion polls. The ICM polls in the Guardian this week showed support for the war slumping from 63 per cent in April to 51 per cent in July, to 38 per cent in September. The Gallup polls in USA Today this week gave the latest Democratic candidate, former General Wesley Clark, a three-point lead over the President. At just 50 per cent, Bush had the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, and his support among American males has dropped 17 per cent in the last month. Such plunges concentrate politicians’ minds wonderfully, and demand explanations – and scapegoats.
Blair fits the bill. ‘We are getting the spillover from Blair’s problems,’ a White House aide grumbled at a weekend party in Washington. ‘Blair brought this Hutton inquiry mess on to himself, and his loss of trust back in Britain is starting to hurt us here.’
‘It was Blair who made us go back to the UN for that second resolution that we never won,’ recalled another. ‘He insisted he had to have a UN mandate because of his own Labour party rebels – and that gave the French the opportunity they wanted to stick it to us.’
The thrash, thrown by the former Bush speechwriter David Frum, and defiantly turned into an autumnal garden party because Hurricane Isabel had cut the electricity, saw a whole series of anti-Blair resentments on parade. Conversational knots gathered around neoconservative paladins like Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen. And Frum’s friends from the White House, from the conservative thinktanks and media and Congressional staffs, were more than eager to vent.
‘Blair has become a liability,’ muttered one veteran of the Reagan administration, as a defence expert asked if we had heard of Blair’s latest sell-out of Nato at the Berlin summit. The curious gathered round eagerly, to hear that the Germans were claiming that Blair had finally conceded that the EU should have its own defence staff, independent of Nato. Indeed, a leak from Chancellor Gerhard Schr