Magazine article The Spectator

The Conversation with Blair That Taught Me Why He's Standing by Bush

Magazine article The Spectator

The Conversation with Blair That Taught Me Why He's Standing by Bush

Article excerpt

Washington Whether Tony Blair decides to oblige the braying Brownites and step down at the next party conference, or hang in there until the 2007 Labour party gathering, doesn't much matter when it comes to appraising the muchmocked Blair-Bush relationship. In relatively short order, both men will have reached the end of their careers in electoral politics, bringing to a close an amazing relationship between your Prime Minister and my President. And one that is badly misunderstood.

Not by chance. Pundits and pols on your side of the ocean have a stake in proving that Tony Blair is George Bush's poodle, and their counterparts on my side find it useful to depict Bush as so inarticulate and, er, dumb, that he needs Blair to flit over to America to explain US foreign policy. So it's not-very-bright Bush and notvery-powerful Blair locked in an embrace of necessity.

Good fun, but wrong. I remember sitting with the PM on the lawn of a deserted No.10 on a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon, sipping a Diet Coke, the same drink I was offered years ago in the humbler setting of the office Blair occupied when still an obscure opposition politician, quizzing me on the effect on employment of his proposed minimum-wage law.

The afternoon's topic: Britain's place in the world. Blair may lurch from policy to policy when it comes to crime, education and other domestic issues, but when it comes to foreign policy he has a very definite view of where he wants to take Britain.

Start with a view he shares with the President. The foreign-policy establishments of both countries are somewhere between useless and harmful to their nations' interests.

Blair knows that the Foreign Office is irremediably pro-Arab and anti-Israel -- 'Remember where the oil is, old boy, remember the atrocities those Jews committed to drive us out of Palestine, and remember all the money the Saudis and others spend and invest in Britain.' Bush knows that his State Department -- especially in the days of Colin Powell and at least until he parachuted in Condoleezza Rice -- prefers any deal to no deal when there is a crisis, is unnerved by any threat to the status quo, and found Saudi Arabia's smooth Prince Bandar more congenial than the rougher-hewn Ariel Sharon.

So both men rely on their own judgments and instincts when it comes to carving out a role for their countries in an increasingly fractious world. The striped-pants brigade can tut-tut, but no matter.

Back to No.10 on that great English afternoon. No strawberries and cream, but unlimited Diet Cokes. As requested, I laid out the economic arguments for and against deeper involvement with the EU, and suggested that the economic data show that even the extreme case -- withdrawal from the Union -- would not hurt the UK economy and might even enable it to grow faster.

Blair's reply reminded me of the time I argued to Margaret Thatcher that she was costing the Treasury a small -- well, not so small -- fortune by underpricing shares in British Gas. 'This has nothing to do with economics, ' was the reply (I paraphrase). 'This is about politics. We need to have more shareholders than union members, and I want the original purchasers [remember the 'Sids'? ] to do so well that they become shareholders in other companies.' In a similar vein Blair argued that the EU is not about economics -- something Gordon Brown doesn't quite understand, was the unspoken subtext -- but about the position of Britain in the world. Britain can be a world power only if it does two things -- engage the EU so completely that it is accepted as a true European, and grapple itself to America with hoops of steel (that's my theft of Shakespeare, not Blair's).

The first task is made difficult by Britain's failure to adopt the euro; the second by the not-so-latent anti-Americanism on the Left of the Labour party, and on the snob-Right of the Tory party. Blair has consistently sought to overcome those obstacles so that Britain might become the bridge between Europe and America; a role that Blair is certain is the only alternative to marginalisation. …

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