Blair's reputation 'took a big hit' for backing Bush on Iraq, says Campbell

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Tony Blair's personal reputation has taken a "big hit" because of his close links with President George Bush, Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street director of communications, said yesterday.

Tony Blair's personal reputation has taken a "big hit" because of his close links with President George Bush, Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street director of communications, said yesterday.

In the frankest admission by a close Blair ally of the damage caused to the Prime Minister by the Iraq war, Mr Campbell told BBC Radio 4: "The reality is - there is no point in denying this - that Tony has taken a big political hit as a result of what is perceived to be a strong relationship with President Bush."

Mr Campbell, who left Downing Street last autumn but remains close to Mr Blair, predicted the Prime Minister would not suffer further damage if Mr Bush was re-elected. "Iraq has been such an intense, divisive issue over such a long period that in a sense the political damage and the political benefit on that, whatever that may be assessed as, is well established," he said.

Mr Campbell said Mr Blair would quickly form a strong relationship with John Kerry if the Democrat is elected to the White House. "The reality is that if you are the British Prime Minister, you have got to get on and have a meaningful and strong relationship with the President of the United States, whoever that may be, whatever their politics may be."

Downing Street has recently forged some links with Mr Kerry. Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, phoned leading US Democrats at the end of last week and British representatives have met the Kerry campaign team.

Mr Blair has always felt President Bush would win, and has officially remained neutral to avoid offending either side. But he has upset Democrats by not acknowledging links between New Labour and the New Democrats launched by Bill Clinton.

Agreeing to America's request to redeploy British troops in Iraq in the run-up to the election reinforced the impression that Mr Blair was backing Mr Bush. "If Kerry wins, we will have a lot of bridges to build," a Labour source said. British ministers fear that the Democrat would spurn Mr Blair's invitations to visit London on his first overseas trip and make a symbolic visit to Brusselsto heal the wounds left by the Iraq war.

Cabinet colleagues believe Mr Blair privately wants a Kerry win, which would offer him a chance to draw a line under the Iraq war and make peace with Labour critics.

Aides admit that Mr Blair would take a "short-term hit" from a Kerry victory because the Prime Minister would be portrayed as the "last man standing" who led his country to war in Iraq. But they hope that would be short-term and point out that John Howard, who backed the war, was re-elected in Australia.

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