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Last Updated: Friday, 21 November, 2003, 13:17 GMT
Blair's sighs of relief

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Tony Blair can feel quietly relieved that, despite all the hype, President Bush's state visit was not the disaster so many had predicted.

It may not have been a cause for national celebration and unity.

There had been predictions that the visit would harm Blair
But it could have been very much more difficult and damaging for the prime minister.

Before the president arrived, the prime minister insisted it was precisely the right time for him to pay such a visit.

It was a claim that was constantly challenged amid fears that the entire trip could cause real harm to the prime minister's standing.

Instead of presenting a triumphant display of the continuing strength of the most special of special relationships, it threatened to reinforce the critics' view of the leaders as the men responsible for taking Britain into an unpopular war and provoking further terrorist attacks.

It also threatened to play to the claims that this alliance is a one way street with the prime minister risking his own popularity to support the president while getting little in return.

Indeed, instead of winning some reflected power and glory from his ally, Mr Blair risked attracting scorn and even ridicule for being his "poodle."

The fact that there were never going to be breakthroughs on key issues like the threatened trade war over steel and the fate of British prisoners in Guantanamo Bay added to that impression.

And, of course, there were real fears that mass anti-war demonstrations would disrupt the visit and even lead to violence.

Peaceful

And it all came against the background of the huge difficulties in post-war Iraq.

In the end, however, the worst was avoided. An unprecedented security operation ensured the president never came within egg-throwing distance of any protesters and, in any case, the demonstrations were largely peaceful.

The visit and its consequences were entirely overshadowed by the terrorist attacks on British interests in Turkey
And the president may have boosted his personal image by showing he is not the bumbling, redneck hick his detractors would have us believe.

As for Tony Blair, he again proved that he is passionate about this relationship and is ready to take risks to preserve it.

But probably more significantly, if tragically, the visit and its consequences were entirely overshadowed by the terrorist attacks on British interests in Turkey.

For those who support the war and the Bush-Blair alliance, there could have been no better example of why the British prime minister needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US president.

For the critics, of course, the attacks were the clearest possible evidence of the damage being done by this relationship.

Changed minds?

The prime minister was even asked at a joint press conference with Mr Bush if he believed the deaths and injuries in Istanbul were a direct result of him standing alongside the president.

And that difference probably sums up the effect this state visit had.

It is highly unlikely that anyone opposed to the war on Iraq or the close alliance between Mr Blair and Mr Bush will have had their minds changed by this trip.

Similarly, those who believe the prime minister is absolutely right to tie Britain so closely to the US will have seen nothing to change their view.

Whatever Downing Street and the prime minister might have said, they were extremely nervous about this visit.

When Air Force One finally takes off on its return journey to the US, they will breathe a huge sigh of relief.




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