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Last Updated: Friday, 5 March, 2004, 11:29 GMT
'Mr Blair... have you met President Kerry?'
By James Landale
BBC News

If Senator John Kerry does become the next US president, no-one would be in a more interesting position than Tony Blair. Having been best pals with Bill Clinton and then George W Bush, how would the special relationship fare under another Democrat president?

This week something odd happened. A left-of-centre party chose its candidate to challenge for the presidency of the world's last remaining superpower. That superpower's closest ally happens to be led by the leader of another centre-left party.

You might imagine he would be the first on the phone to congratulate the newly elected candidate and wish him well in the forthcoming election. Yet this close ally did nothing, said nothing, and sent no message of congratulation.

So just what does Tony Blair have against John Kerry?

The prime minister's official spokesman was adamant. Tony Blair, he said, is so determined not to get involved in the American presidential elections that he will not even send his congratulations to Senator Kerry.

The spokesman referred to the prime minister's remarks at a recent news conference when he said he did not intend to get involved. Reporters pointed out that even President Bush had sent his congratulations to Mr Kerry. The prime minister's spokesman did not respond.

Talks shelved

More than that, behind the scenes, instructions have gone out: the Labour Party must stay out of the US presidential campaign. Plans for senior Labour figures to hold talks with senior Democrats have been shelved.

Blairs and Clintons at dinner
The Blairs and Clintons still enjoy a close friendship
So what is going on? Mr Blair's critics say it shows he's so close to President Bush that he no longer even dares to be courteous to George W's political opponents. Mr Blair's supporters are just puzzled, bemused that their man is prepared potentially to risk alienating someone who is just one election away from the White House.

It is all a long way from the love-in between Mr Blair and Bill Clinton that continues to this day. There was golf at Chequers, the prime minister's official country residence, dinners at smart restaurants on London's south bank.

Their officials traded tactics and techniques, albeit a trade that flowed more from Washington to London than vice versa. No self-respecting Labour apparatchik could show his or her face at the party's Millbank Tower headquarters if they hadn't done a stint on a Democrat election campaign.

The prime minister looked to Mr Clinton for political succour and guidance, both men on the same wavelength, the same generation. The former president is still a frequent, albeit discreet, visitor to Number 10 and Chequers.

Power play

But the point is that all this had nothing to do with Bill Clinton being a Democrat. Instead, it had everything to do with Bill Clinton's personality, his electoral success, his approach to politics, his Third Way theories of big tents and triangulation, and above all his power. It was a relationship between two individuals who just happened to lead parties from the same neck of the political woods.

Bush and Blair on first press conference
The first Bush-Blair meeting
Many were equally puzzled when the prime minister transferred his allegiance so smoothly to George Bush. Well, relatively smoothly. The body language at their first meeting at Camp David three years ago was hardly warm.

There the conservative Texas oil man in his trademark bomber jacket was asked what he had in common with this Oxford-educated social democrat in jumper and jeans with hands jammed into his pockets like a teenager on a first date. Both men looked goofily at each other for a second before Mr Bush famously revealed that they shared the same taste in toothpaste.

But Mr Blair followed Bill Clinton's advice to be Bush's friend, to "be the guy he turns to".

The relationship grew slowly but was transformed by the 11 September attacks. Both men discovered a shared, common purpose in the war on terror. They also discovered they had a shared set of values, a Christian faith, a desire to do what they saw to be right.

Having to get on

The common point of Tony Blair's relationship with both presidents, though, is that he knew he simply had to get on with them. A Friend of Bill had to become a Friend of George. Presidents may change, but UK foreign policy remains the same - and that means whoever lives in Downing Street must be close to whoever lives in the large white building at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The respected political commentator of the Times, Peter Riddell, says: "The whole point of Tony Blair is that he's interested in who's in power. He's not particularly interested in ideology."

So this is why Mr Blair is staying out the presidential election. He knows he will, nay he must, get on with whoever wins. The UK's role in international politics, he believes, is to engage with the US, regardless of the cost. Post-war, post-Hutton, post-Clare Short, Mr Blair is painfully aware of that cost.

Bush and Blair
Now close friends
If President Bush were defeated, that would at first sight be difficult for Mr Blair. His ally in the war on terror would be gone, he would have to deal with the new President Kerry, who is much more equivocal.

The senator supported the war but was concerned about the distorted intelligence and the exaggerated threat. Some of his other views, such as his protectionist instincts, are already ruffling feathers in trade ministries around the European Union.

On a personal note, Mr Blair is not believed to have met Mr Kerry. But his neighbour Gordon Brown is more than chummy, an advantage that the chancellor's supporters are not slow in making clear. Mr Brown's aides are close to some of Mr Kerry's advisers, in particular Bob Shrum.

But in practice, none of this need prejudice any relationship between a President Kerry and a Prime Minister Blair. Both would need to deal with each other. On the war at least, Mr Blair's views appear closer to Mr Kerry's than some might think - both want the US to play a more multinational role in the world; both think it should get closer to its allies.

And there are spin-offs for Mr Blair. A Kerry presidency would improve his relations with his European partners. It would also calm the fevered brows of Labour MPs uncomfortable with Mr Blair's proximity to Mr Bush.

The bottom line is this: if John Kerry is elected to the Oval Office in November, Mr Blair would make it his business to do business with him. In other words, he would change his toothpaste without a moment's thought.




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