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Friday, 12 January, 2001, 12:56 GMT
Hague bids for US special relationship
Prime Minister Tony Blair and Tory leader William Hague
Star wars opens Blair Hague defence split
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

William Hague's decision to back incoming President George Bush's plans for a new 'Star Wars' defence system is a calculated attempt to put Tony Blair on the spot.

The government has so far refused to commit itself one way or the other over the National Missile Defence project, stating only that it will make no decision until the new American government has announced its intentions.

But any suggestion that the Labour government would back the proposal would land the prime minister with a major headache.

It could re-open all the old internal feuds over nuclear defence which did so much to damage Labour in the 1970s and 1980s.

And it could put a severe strain on the relations between Mr Blair and President Bush before it had even got off the ground.

There are already deep misgivings about the proposal in the foreign office, with minister Peter Hain deeply opposed to it.

Fylingdales early warning base
Fylingdales would provide warning
There have also been reports that the system has not been properly tested and may, like Ronald Reagan's Star Wars project before it, never become operational.

If the prime minister backs it and allows the necessary upgrading of the Fylingdales early warning base he would face an immediate backlash from many on his own MPs.

Old rows

Those who previously accused Margaret Thatcher of allowing President Reagan to treat Britain like a giant aircraft carrier would undoubtedly use similar arguments against Mr Blair.

They would also claim that it would turn Britain into a target, start a fresh arms race and drive a wedge between the UK and Europe.

Mr Hague's claim that his backing for the project is equivalent to Lady Thatcher's decision to allow US missiles at Greenham Common will only, and deliberately, stoke up all those old rows.

The last thing Tony Blair wants to see in the run up to the election, or even after, would be peace camps at Fylingdales.

However, a blank refusal to have anything to do with the project or upgrade Fylingdales would carry its own risks.

Tory leader William Hague
Hague wants close links with Bush
Many in the US are already concerned at Mr Blair's backing for the European defence force and see it as Britain turning away from its American and Nato allies in favour of a new EU allegiance.

Mr Blair has always fiercely denied this and insisted that the new Euro force would do nothing to weaken Britain's links with the US or Nato.

But the prime minister is keenly aware that he needs to maintain the so-called "special relationship" between Britain and the US in the wake of the Clinton era.

Washington visit

He and the outgoing President were firm friends and clearly had much in common, both politically and personally.

There can be little doubt that Mr Blair was dismayed at the outcome of the US election, when it eventually came, but he is now determined to be amongst the first world leaders to visit President Bush.

That meeting is expected to happen within the next couple of months and the Star Wars project is certain to be raised, particularly now Mr Hague has made an issue of it.

As far as Mr Hague is concerned, he is looking to cast himself somewhat in the Thatcher mould by suggesting his party is the natural ally of the Republicans and that he would have a closer relationship with President Bush.

He is, of course, leaving himself open to the same attacks that Mr Blair would face if he backed the project.

But the clear calculation is that traditional Tory voters will welcome such a sign that the old relationship between their party and Washington could be rekindled.

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See also:

12 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Hague backs 'Star Wars' scheme
29 Dec 00 | UK Politics
UK welcomes Bush defence appointment
14 Dec 00 | UK Politics
'Star wars' controversy on horizon
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