After the pageantry, the hard politics and protests

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Indy Politics

They came within 300 yards and two minutes of each other, but President George Bush and British anti-war protesters were in every other sense a million miles apart yesterday.

With the Istanbul bombings ensuring that American security was even tighter than usual, the second full day of his state visit did not have a single moment's exposure of the President to the public.

The bloody attacks 1,500 miles away formed a horrific backdrop to events and ensured that the gulf between opponents and supporters of Mr Bush was wider than ever.

While he and Tony Blair were in Downing Street expressing their iron determination not to give in to international terror, many of the estimated 200,000 pro-testers who thronged Whitehall and Trafalgar Square felt that the suicide bombings proved the folly of the US-led attack on Iraq.

After the warm welcome and pageantry offered by royalty and Government on Wednesday, this was the day the alternative, often angry, view of the Bush visit finally spilt on to London's streets.

More importantly, the endless rolling roadblocks, the so-called sterile areas and swarms of police were replaced by a colourful mass of peaceful protest.

And as the President's motorcade melted into the early evening gloom through the gates of Buckingham Palace, there was an overwhelming sense of Britons reclaiming their capital city.


The Presidential convoy left the Palace and sped down The Mall, its armour-plated limousines snaking through Horseguards Parade like an ominous trail of black smoke.

As if to underline the invasionary feel of the visit, forklift trucks had earlier dumped concrete crash barriers around the Abbey, and Westminster's normally busy Tube station was closed.

Over-zealous police officers manning the barriers even prevented some parliamentarians from entering Parliament Square. In theory, only MPs and Lords were allowed access, and then only on foot and with a police escort.

The left-wing rebel Dennis Skinner was unamused to be refused entry. The MP was told by a humble PC that no one was allowed through because of the President's visit. "That stops me going to work. I go every day, I was there until 2.45am last night, we have a big important vote today and because of this tin-pot cowboy Bush I can't go through," he said. The copper laughed out loud. The Beast of Bolsover marched off clutching his plastic carrier bag to try another route.

Inside the Abbey, the formalities resumed as the President laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown warrior. The President stood silent, eyes closed and head bowed as a wreath of white carnations was placed on the grave by two US soldiers.

He then met families of British troops killed in Iraq and told them they had not died in vain. Speaking afterwards, Mr Bush said he would continue to pray for the families. "Our nations honour their sacrifice. I pray for the comfort of the families. Our mission in Iraq is noble and it is necessary." A Ministry of Defence spokes-man refused to give details of the meeting. "He is meeting a representative sample of families - a cross-section of different services, ranks and causes of death."


The motorcade travelled the few hundred yards to Downing Street, where a sombre-looking President and first lady were warmly greeted by Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, on the steps of No 10. Mr Bush threw a friendly arm around Mr Blair's shoulders.

Out of sight and hearing, 60 members of Amnesty International had assembled across the road in Whitehall to protest at the treatment of detainees in Cuba. Six demonstrators in boiler suits stood behind black metal bars in an attempt to recreate the scene at Guantanamo Bay.

Inside Downing Street, the President and Mr Blair engaged in the hard diplomacy of the trip in a one-to-one meeting in the White Room. The latest intelligence from Istanbul came in as they discussed topics including Iraq, the Middle East peace process, Nato, the EU, world trade and the coming G8 summits.

Meanwhile, the first lady and Mrs Blair were watching schoolchildren performing scenes from Shakespeare in one of the state rooms. Also present were Tessa Jowell, the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, and the playwright Tom Stoppard.

After the plays, the four went on to lunch in one of Downing Street's state rooms, where the menu was identical to that offered to the President.


The ornately decorated Locarno Suite in the Foreign Office hosted the only press event of the visit, a media briefing that lasted just half an hour and included only six questions. In the interests of the "special relationship", they were split evenly, with three from Brits and three from Americans.

Mr Bush indicated that he still hoped to hand over power in Iraq to a new Iraqi government next year. He said that the terrorist attacks, not just in Istanbul but in Baghdad and elsewhere, were an "attack on freedom".

With typical Texan understatement, he said of the terrorists of al-Qa'ida: "They attack when they can and our job is to secure our homelands and chase down these killers and bring them to justice. We are dismantling the operating management one person at a time. We are in an international manhunt."

To Mr Blair's evident embarrassment, Nick Robinson, political editor of ITV News, asked the question many of his colleagues lacked the nerve to pose. Did the President understand why so many people in Britain appeared to fear or even hate him?

"I don't know that they do. All I know is that the people of Baghdad, for example, weren't allowed to do this up until recent history. Freedom is a wonderful thing."

Outside, as if to prove his point, a plurality of protest emerged. As the Amnesy protest broke up, a small group of three pro-Bush supporters walked past, waving the Stars and Stripes while singing the American national anthem.


The much-trumpeted Nigella Bites were finally bitten into as the Bush and Blair entourages enjoyed a lunch of roast pumpkin, braised ham and double apple pie, all prepared under the supervision of the pouting TV chef.

Despite the grand menu in the State Dining Room, it was here that serious talking took place between the two administrations, with senior intelligence chiefs and foreign policy advisers backing up their respective leaders.


The demonstration left Malet Street on its way to Aldwych, across Waterloo Bridge, through the South Bank and on to Westminster. A total of 5,123 officers were on duty across the capital - the highest number on in the operation so far.

Damon Albarn, Blur's front man, at the head of the crowd, called the protest a "smart march for smart people".


Mr Blair took up his normal seat at the centre of the coffin-shaped table in the Cabinet Room, with Mr Bush alongside him as they discussed the crisis with an impressive array of health experts from Africa and Britain.

The two leaders launched a joint task force on HIV/Aids, with ministers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia and Uganda all present, as well as Hilary Benn, Britain's Secretary of State for International Development, and Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State .

The United Kingdom is the second-largest donor in the world in the fight against Aids, spending £270m in the latest financial year.

America is the world's largest Aids donor, spending $15bn (£9bn). Mr Blair said at the start of the meeting: "This is one of the key questions facing our world at the moment."


Mr and Mrs Bush were waved off by the Prime Minister and his wife just minutes before protesters turned into Whitehall on the biggest weekday demonstration seen in the UK. Before he sped off back to Buckingham Palace, Mr Bush told waiting reporters it had been an "absolutely spectacular" visit. In either a carefully timed piece of political choreography or sheer good luck, he didn't even hear the chants of the crowd coming over Westminster Bridge.


In an image that protesters hope will be sent around the world, an effigy of President Bush was toppled in Trafalgar Square. The papier-mache statue was dragged to the ground, sending a stark message from people opposed to the war in Iraq.

Yet as the crowds sang and chanted, the first lady emerged from a tour of Faberge treasures at the Queen's Gallery at the Palace to claim that the protests against her husband's state visit had been smaller than expected. "We haven't seen that many protests," she said. "But we have seen many American flags and people welcoming us."


In line with state visit protocol, Mr and Mrs Bush hosted a reciprocal dinner for the Queen at Winfield House, the American ambassador's residence in Regent's Park.