Blair pushes for Middle East peace deal

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair, in an attempt to convince critics at home that his "special relationship" with the United States President is not a one-way street, will tonight urge George Bush to keep up maximum pressure for a Middle East peace settlement.

The Prime Minister will address a special joint session of both Houses of the US Congress, where he is certain to receive a hero's welcome after his solid support for Mr Bush over the Iraq war. But at home, his personal ratings are heading from hero towards zero amid growing criticism that he took the country to war on dubious evidence about Saddam Hussein's weapons programme.

In his speech, Mr Blair will emphasise the crucial importance of a Middle East peace agreement, saying: "Terrorism cannot be finally defeated without one." His message is intended to remind Labour MPs he has pushed Mr Bush into a proactive stance on the Middle East in return for backing him on Iraq. Similarly, he will urge the US to join the battle against global warming, despite its opposition to the Kyoto Protocol.

The Prime Minister will acknowledge the need for the US, Britain and its allies to "finish the job" in Iraq and Afghan-istan so "states of terror are transformed into nations of prosperity". Calling for the US and European Union to act together, he will say their shared values are not "western" but "universal".

For Mr Blair, Washington is the start of what his aides call a week-long "world tour" that will also take in Japan, South Korea, China and Hong Kong. When the details were worked out after the Iraq war, it looked like it would be a victory parade. Since then, the sweetness of a swift military success has turned sour for Mr Blair. He has been under pressure over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, and bruised by Labour backbench attacks on foundation hospitals and university top-up fees. The Government's plans to restrict trial by jury have been blocked by the Lords.

Then there was the worst cabinet reshuffle in living memory. Far from showing the postwar Prime Minister in a decisive mood, he looked vacillating and weak, with rushed out back-of-an-envelope reforms to the legal and judicial systems. There was little "strong leadership" on the euro either, only another fudge.

Labour MPs were warned yesterday that phrases such as "dodgy dossier" and "you can't trust Labour" were harming the Government. Ian McCartney, the Labour chairman, told the Parliamentary Labour Party that such abuse was being "burnt into the national psyche" by constant repetition by the Tories. Partly because of the failure to find WMD in Iraq, Mr Blair's attempts to switch the spotlight from international to domestic issues have foundered. Ministers believe his personal ratings have dropped because voters lost trust in him over the reasons for war, and because they think he is focusing too much on foreign affairs.

"Tony has been swamped by Iraq for almost a year," one minister said yesterday. "That has compounded our problems on the domestic agenda." Another minister, paraphrasing Bill Clinton's "it's the economy, stupid" maxim, said: "It's public services, stupid. And I don't mean in Baghdad." Mr Blair is aware of the problem. After his world tour, he will hold a press conference on British soil before taking a much-needed holiday in Barbados.

Labour MPs start their summer break today in a febrile state. The mood during Prime Minister's Questions yesterday was instructive. Labour backbenchers rallied behind Mr Blair when he attacked Iain Duncan Smith over the Tories' health policy. But there were many blank faces when he was on the defensive over Iraq. On that issue, the Prime Minister seems to have lost the confidence of many of his MPs. Yesterday, he did not help to regain it by appearing to equivocate over the Government's claim that Iraq sought to import uranium from Niger.

Today's trip to Washington comes at the worst possible moment for Mr Blair. It is not just that Labour MPs are questioning his close relationship with Mr Bush. The Prime Minister is getting the worst of all worlds because there are growing tensions with the Bush administration over the reconstruction of Iraq and "the Niger connection", which has been disowned by the CIA.

Another cloud is the plight of two Britons held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba who face trial in a US military court. Mr Blair will not mention them in tonight's speech but he will raise the Government's concerns in the talks which follow at the White House.

Although British ministers do not believe the men will be repatriated to face trial in Britain, the Prime Minister will press Mr Bush to ensure they get a fair hearing and proper legal representation. He will reiterate Britain's implacable opposition to the death penalty.

Mr Blair has had problems during previous summers. In 1999, John Prescott caused reports of rifts with the Prime Minister when he deputised for him. The fuel crisis blew up over the summer of 2000. A year later, the trade unions were in revolt over plans to boost the role of the private sector in public services. When Mr Blair returned from his holiday last year, he had to cool growing speculation about a war in Iraq.

And this autumn, he is fighting on several fronts, facing a hostile TUC conference and the toughest Labour conference in his nine years as leader.