Hague outfoxes Blair then flies to heal rift with Bush

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Jousting with all his old skill, William Hague produced a sparkling performance at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, before flying to the United States in an attempt to warm up the frosty relations between the Conservatives and the Bush administration.

The former Conservative leader outshone Tony Blair across the dispatch box, with ministers claiming he had also eclipsed the Tory leader. David Cameron was on paternity leave after the birth of his third child 24 hours earlier, although he left his wife Samantha's side to vote against the Government yesterday on its Terrorism Bill.

In his first intervention, Mr Hague took a sideswipe at Gordon Brown's anxiety to take over the premiership, and targeted the caretaker leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Menzies Campbell, at the same time, saying: "It's probably the first time in history at Prime Minister's Questions that all three parties have been represented by a stand-in for the real leader."

Immediately after questions, the former Tory leader caught a plane to Washington for a meeting today with Karl Rove, President George Bush's deputy chief of staff. It is the first official meeting since Mr Rove broke off links with the Tories because the leader at the time, Michael Howard, attacked Tony Blair over the war on Iraq. Mr Rove reportedly told Tory aides: "You can forget about him meeting the President. Don't bother coming."

Mr Hague will be joined at the meeting by George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, who met Tim Adams, the Under Secretary at the US Treasury, and Liam Fox, the shadow Foreign Secretary yesterday. Later they will meet Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, and the Albright group of Democrats.

Mr Hague is hoping to meet Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, but the purpose of the trip is to lay the ground for Mr Cameron to visit the White House with the hope of meeting the President. Dr Fox and Mr Hague are due to deliver a hard-hitting message in speeches today calling for the "special relationship" to be honest enough to accept criticism by the Tories in future. In an outspoken speech, Dr Fox will come close to breaking the convention that prime ministers are not criticised by British politicians abroad.

He will accuse Mr Blair of "grandstanding rather than grit" over the war on terror, adding that the Prime Minister has shown a "proclivity to say 'yes' to Mr Bush, without saying 'no' to those cabinet colleagues who prefer public spending at home to national security abroad."

Dr Fox will defend the Tories' criticism of Mr Blair after the war on Iraq. "I can understand why Americans appreciated Tony Blair's support for America in Iraq. President Bush personally felt a debt of gratitude. The White House wished to defend Mr Blair's interests and reputation. But I am afraid that in democracies interests and reputations must be challenged, especially at elections," Dr Fox will say.

Dr Fox will also criticise Mr Bush's post-war strategy in Iraq, saying: "It was a mistake to disband the Iraqi army too early; it was a mistake not to commit more ground troops; it was a mistake to regard the ease of victory as an indication that defeating new threats arising from the chaos would be equally easy." His remarks could risk reopening the rift with America but Tory aides say the row "is in the past".