Is the Prime Minister a partner or a poodle?

There were no British forces involved in the first strikes against Iraq on Wednesday night - American cruise missiles were launched from US ships in the Persian Gulf. But it was Tony Blair not Bill Clinton who first went on television to announce that Saddam Hussein was under fire. The backdrop was not the White House but 10 Downing Street. And of course the next morning the British headlines boasted that Blair and Clinton had launched a joint raid on Saddam Hussein. It was as if the American President, himself being showered with the missiles of potential impeachment, was giving the British Prime Minister a reward for his loyal and unswerving support.

During his statement to the Commons last week, Tony Blair made a point of dismissing the claims that Clinton had only ordered the air strikes to distract attention from his own predicament. "He has shown the courage to do the right thing and he has my full support," he told MPs. It would be a "dereliction" of Britain's duties to do anything else. On Friday, as Mr Blair held a Presidential-style press conference on the eve of the impeachment vote, he again dismissed claims that the American leader had his mind on other things. "I have always found him completely focused on this matter because it's so important when we are putting our people into action," he said.

In return, Mr Clinton has involved him as an equal partner in the airstrikes - even though Britain has contributed only a fraction of the military power. Mr Blair has been presented as a war leader punching above his weight on the international stage - during his Commons statement, he seemed strangely ambiguous about this role, one moment staring ahead in Churchill- like solemnity, the next stumbling over his words.

The two men first discussed the impending strikes last Friday, when Mr Blair was at the summit of European leaders in Vienna. Over the secure phone that had been specially installed in the prime ministerial suite, they agreed that the plans, which had remained in place since airstrikes were called off last month, should be implemented if the report on weapons inspections was as damning as it was expected to be. Then on Tuesday night, the American President telephoned Downing Street from Air Force One to inform Mr Blair that the strikes were to go ahead.

The closeness of the Blair-Clinton relationship has infuriated Labour's left-wingers. Tony Benn said Britain had been turned into America's "poodle", and George Galloway said the Prime Minister had been taken in by a man who was leading a crusade not as "Richard the Lionheart but Clinton the liar". More importantly, it has begun to irritate the rest of Europe.

Leaders of the other European Union member states have begun to feel that Mr Blair is giving his allegiance not to them but to America. In specifying in their statements of support "the action taken by the United States and the United Kingdom", EU ministers appeared to be distancing themselves from events. Critics argue that Mr Blair's commitment to Mr Clinton is in danger of leaving the former increasingly isolated.

But Mr Blair has remained loyal to him throughout. At the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when the President's honesty, as well as his womanising, was under scrutiny, the Prime Minister rode to his rescue at every opportunity. Friends say this is partly because the two men get on well at a personal level. During a presidential visit to London earlier this year there was the meal they had at the Pont de la Tour with their clever lawyer wives - their choice of this Conran restaurant indicative of a shared outlook that is young, modernising, and dedicated to style. Bill plays the saxophone, Tony the guitar. Bill removes benefits from people who refuse to accept work, Tony introduces the New Deal for young unemployed.

But Downing Street insists there is more to it than that Clinton and Blair are friends. Increasingly, Government insiders are stressing the importance of the "special relationship" with the US. "It's more than sentimentality, more than the personal relationship," Mr Blair's official spokesman said yesterday. "He thinks it is in Britain's interest that we have good relations with the United States."

Downing Street points out that Mr Clinton played a key part in securing the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Private calls from the US President kept the main players in the game right to the end. Now Government spokesmen insist that Mr Blair is convinced in his own right of the case for airstrikes. "The Prime Minister believes in saying what he thinks and doing what he thinks is right. He actually thinks it's right to take out the military institutions. It's nonsense to say we're only doing it as an American poodle." It remains to be seen how loyal Mr Blair will remain now that President Clinton has been impeached.