Peter Oborne

Bush to Howard: hands off Tony

Peter Oborne reveals that an operation has been launched within the White House to protect the President’s most important ally, and that the Tories are under pressure to give the Prime Minister an easy ride

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Peter Oborne reveals that an operation has been launched within the White House to protect the President’s most important ally, and that the Tories are under pressure to give the Prime Minister an easy ride

F or months Westminster has been alive with talk about the potential damage that defeat for George Bush in this November’s Presidential contest would inflict on Tony Blair’s standing in the Labour party. This just goes to show how parochial Westminster political discourse has become. The much larger and more interesting issue — what would it mean for President Bush if, as now looks possible, Tony Blair will be driven out of office over the summer? — has been neglected. The President himself is scared stiff.

It is easy to understand his alarm. George Bush has already lost José Maria Aznar, the former prime minister of Spain, from his Iraq Coalition. He is all but resigned to the looming disappearance of a second ally, Prime Minister John Howard of Australia. Howard, once described by Bush as a ‘close personal friend of mine’, played a significant role in giving some international credibility to the Coalition before the invasion. He is now paying the price for defying domestic opinion. Though the Australian economy is rosy, Howard’s Conservatives are crashing in the polls.

But the most important leader of the international Coalition, by far, was and remains Tony Blair, the only foreign leader of whom American voters are even dimly aware. In recent weeks the Republican party has woken up, with a gulp of horror, to the prospect of a Blair defenestration. Specifically, it fears that the British Prime Minister could damage George Bush’s international standing by quitting before the November Presidential election. Many Republicans are not too bothered about what happens afterwards.

So an operation has been launched within the White House, the State Department and above all the Republican party to keep Tony Blair in office. This takes a number of forms. George Bush understands that extravagant praise for his close friend no longer serves a useful purpose. There are likely to be fewer tributes from now on to Tony Blair as a ‘stand-up kind of guy’ and similarly effusive references that now litter the public record. The White House fully understands that it may become necessary, for the purposes of domestic consumption, to allow the Prime Minister to place a distance between himself and the White House. It is even happy to foster the myth, desperately being placed in the public domain by allies of 10 Downing Street, that the Prime Minister’s strong private relationship with President Bush gives him great ‘influence’ over US policy.

This is at best an unproven proposition, as policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic know. One senior official privately describes telling Blair, ahead of a pre-war meeting with George Bush, that Britain’s standing in Washington was now so high that he could make practically any demands he liked, and that they would probably be granted. A list was provided. The official was aghast when the British Prime Minister did not raise a single one of them at the meeting which followed. Later he described the meeting, and his feeling of utter amazement, to Jack Straw. The Foreign Secretary shrugged his shoulders. ‘That’s the nature of the beast,’ he said.

But the United States is not only eager to do what it can to ease Tony Blair’s perilous domestic isolation. It is keen to offer what practical help it can by exercising secret pressure at Westminster. The Republicans are now stretching themselves to the limit to put pressure on the British Tory party to give Tony Blair the easiest possible ride. This kind of direct intervention in British politics by the United States is far from unprecedented. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan helped out Margaret Thatcher by humiliating Neil Kinnock when he made an official visit to the White House. Last year Vice President Dick Cheney rang up the then Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith to ‘thank him for his support’ after the keenly contested eve-of-conflict vote on the Iraq war.

Now the same kind of pressure is being applied, only in reverse. The White House regrets that the new leader of the Conservative party, Michael Howard, is failing to give unstinting support for the Iraq war and Tony Blair. There have been as yet no menacing calls from the Vice President. But Michael Howard has been left in no doubt that he is in the doghouse. ‘The White House hates Michael,’ says one senior Conservative official, perhaps with exaggeration. ‘It feels that he is not standing shoulder to shoulder with Tony Blair. It is furious with him.’ The official says that Howard has received ‘quite a few indirect messages’ from the administration to the effect that it would be better if he stayed his tongue.

Another member of the Tory leader’s office says that the White House ‘has been letting it be known to us that we are not being supportive enough on the war’. This official adds that the American administration does not feel that the Conservatives are ‘selling the message’. The truth is that George Bush only has the haziest idea of British domestic politics. He once referred to William Hague, when he was Conservative party leader, as ‘that guy with the runner’ — a reference to Seb Coe, Hague’s chief of staff, without whom he rarely left his office. In so far as George Bush has a view of the Conservative party, he thinks it should be out there telling the story, a subsidiary branch of the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. (The US Embassy, however, is also out of favour in Washington, where it is blamed for not putting the American case for war with nearly enough vim. The situation is not helped by the fact that Will Farish, a vanishing figure in any case, has been obliged for imperative domestic reasons to spend a great deal of time away from London.)

Michael Howard is by no stretch of the imagination the only Conservative politician who is being targeted by the US. Colleagues say that Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, has been told informally by the State Department of its disappointment at his attitude. The former Conservative party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, has received a message concerning growing US alarm about the increase in ‘anti-Americanism’, a strong hint that the Conservatives should do more to help out Tony Blair over the war. Duncan Smith spent last week in the United States, where he enjoyed long meetings with Vice President Cheney and the National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

An unmistakable sign of the new coolness between the Conservatives and the Republican party is that no such courtesies have yet been afforded to Michael Howard. At this stage in the electoral cycle, there would normally be intensive discussions about co-operation between the Conservatives and the Republicans, with key Conservative aides readying themselves to fly to the United States to help the Presidential campaign. Little or nothing of the sort looks likely to take place this year, partly because the Republicans are concentrating their firepower on helping out Tony Blair. Relations between the Republican and Conservative parties are at their worst for decades.

There is abundant evidence of this, most eloquent of all Michael Howard’s in-tray. The Conservative leader has been deluged with letters from senior Republicans attacking him, sometimes in strong terms, for his alleged failure to support Tony Blair to the hilt. The Republican party believes that the betrayal is all the greater because of his role in setting up the Atlantic Partnership, a think tank dedicated to ‘purposeful strengthening’ of links between Europe and the United States. The Atlantic Partnership, whose meetings are addressed by senior members of the US administration as well as top-rank European politicians, has be en extremely effective in getting the US message across to an elite British audience. But some of the Partnership’s Republican backers have told Michael Howard that his recent criticisms of Tony Blair amount to a betrayal. According to an aide, Howard recently remarked on receiving a letter from an angry Republican, ‘I am not going to be told by Americans what I will and will not do.’ Downing Street is well aware of this growing Republican disenchantment with the Tory party. One official at No. 10 observes that the White House is getting ‘very testy’ with the Conservatives over their failure to support the war. Possession of this knowledge may be one of the reasons why Blair feels confident about rebuking Howard for undermining his war effort, making claims that he has undermined the armed forces by doing so.

These transatlantic forays against Michael Howard are just one more example of how out of touch the US has become. After all, the main domestic attack on the Tory leader is that he is too close to, not too critical of, the US administration. Howard’s criticisms of Tony Blair, let alone the United States, have been extremely muted, so much so that they are so far indiscernible to the average voter, though that may change over the coming months.

This does not mean that Howard and the Tories have resiled from the war, nor from the necessity to see it through to a conclusion. Indeed, in recent months Howard has started to ask probing questions about the conduct of the occupation, the handling of the Red Cross report into alleged British atrocities, and has put particular emphasis on the lack of a senior figure in the occupation command structure. Above all, he is starting to query Tony Blair’s claim that Britain must never publicly diverge from the United States. Michael Ancram made the point well in last Monday’s Iraq debate, when he complained that Tony Blair ‘never admits in public whether the differences even exist, let alone the discussions he has had on them’.

In fact British leaders before Tony Blair were never afraid of taking a separate line from that of the United States. Harold Wilson did so over Vietnam, while even Margaret Thatcher broke with Reagan both over the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 and the Reykjavik summit between Gorbachev and Reagan in 1986. The Blair doctrine that British leaders must not have public differences with US presidents is very novel. It is not, however, as novel — or as shocking — as the American belief, fully shared by Tony Blair, that Her Majesty’s Opposition should play the role of US poodle as well.