British stiff upper lip trembles at the Tony and Bill love-in

The Blair holiday snaps: Cherie's record of her US trip with Tony - February '98
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The Blairs and the Clintons reinvented the `special relationship' this week with a love-fest in Washington. The Prime Minister said he wanted to see an end to `quaint, old-fashioned' Britain, a nation of bowler hats and stiff upper lips. Mary Dejevsky reports.

Effusive in his thanks for the warmth of Bill's welcome, Tony drummed home how "proud" he was to have Bill "not only as a colleague but as a friend. Bill spoke of "comradeship and partnership", of shared visions and shared aims. In summit mode, they quoted FDR and Churchill. In mutual support mode, Bill said Tony was "so wise and so right".

And, like teenagers, they joshed about it. Did Bill appreciate Tony's compliments? "Of course not," he laughed at the closing press conference. "He should have come here and dumped all over me."

The lighthearted atmosphere of informality was most marked at Thursday's White House banquet, where 240 guests - the largest number at any White House banquet since Mr Clinton came to office - donned dinner jackets and ballgowns for a relaxed and almost informal occasion beneath the chandeliers of the East Room.

The guests spanned the worlds of showbusiness - Barbara Streisand, Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford - politics and punditry, with a larger-than-usual contingent of journalists: from star television anchor Peter Jennings and socialite editor, John Kennedy Jnr, who memorably scolded his relatives in print as "poster-boys for bad behaviour" to the trio of British editors in New York, Tina Brown, Anna Wintour and Liz Tilberis. "It's a bit like a wedding party," Elton John told reporters. "Like the wildest wedding" he had been to, said Tom Hanks: "good band, good food."

With tables settings and candle clusters chosen personally by Hillary Clinton in the first hostess role she has often shunned, the guests sat down to a menu described as "new American" - lean and fresh but combining an improbable range of flavours. The entertainment came from Elton John and Stevie Wonder - with a knighthood for British-born American entertainer Bob Hope announced in advance as a bridge between the generations.

But it was in the toasts that the new-style Special Relationship came into its own. They could joke about history: Mr Clinton about a special relationship that began with "slashing and burning" in 1785; Mr Blair about the briefing paper for White House staff which told them how to pronounce his name and ticked "yes" against the question: "English-speaking?".

Mr Blair took the opportunity to do a hard sell on his "new" nation. "For years we were known more for what we once were than what we could be. For years we were content to rest on former glories, rather than the self-confidence of present day achievement.

"I know what many used to think of us: we were quaint, a little old-fashioned - a country of pageantry and ceremony and stiff upper lips." Now, he said, "Britain is a nation unafraid of change - confident, looking forward."

The two leaders had been mobbed like at a suburban school that had ties with a school in Bristol. Mr Blair dispensed with his prepared script to talk of the limitless opportunities for the next generation. Mr Clinton reminisced about visiting Bristol during his spell at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

The wives, by Cherie's choice it was said, remained in the background, low-key professionals shunning the reflected limelight of their husbands, except to sparkle as gold-clad ornaments at the banquet.