He was always a friend. But now Blair is hailed as a hero

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When the White House knew that Tony Blair would be in Washington on the day George Bush addressed both houses of Congress, officials immediately allocated him a prime seat in what they called "the heroes' gallery".

The Prime Minister sat next to the first lady, Laura Bush, who was, in turn, next to Rudolph Giuliani, the embattled Mayor of New York. In the same row were the "guest heroes" from the emergency services who tried to rescue the victims of the attacks.

There is no doubt Mr Blair is seen as a hero in Washington after playing a pivotal role in cementing the international coalition against terrorism. In his powerful speech, President Bush praised Mr Blair with the simple words: "Thank you, friend." The audience erupted into a standing ovation.

Mr Blair was visibly moved by the extraordinary warmth of his reception. The strength of the much-vaunted "special relationship" between the United States and Britain has often been exaggerated yet Mr Blair believes the events in New York and Washington have made the bonds between the two countries stronger now than ever.

The ties can only deepen because Britain looks certain to provide military back-up for America's retaliation. While other EU countries will promise to stand side-by-side with the US, President Bush knows that Mr Blair will be as good as his word while other nations flake away.

The details of the military response were discussed by the two leaders during a 90-minute dinner at the White House on Thursday. The talks centred on action in Afghanistan and there was no sign of the US widening its campaign to include Iraq. The two leaders got straight down to brass tacks when they talked away from the ears of their own advisers over pre-dinner drinks. Then the next military and diplomatic moves were discussed over scallops, veal, green salad with avocado, and chocolate, washed down with chardonnay and pinot noir.

President Bush was flanked by Colin Powell, his Secretary of State; Condoleeza Rice, the national security adviser, and Dan Fried, the NSA director for European affairs. The Prime Minister was joined by Sir David Manning, his foreign affairs adviser; Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff; Alastair Campbell, his director of strategy and communications; and Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador in Washington.

Time was short because of the President's rare emergency address to Congress and the two leaders took advantage of every possible minute. After the dinner, Mr Blair went with the President to his White House flat as he prepared for his crucial speech, and then travelled with him in his limousine to Capitol Hill. They also spoke briefly after the address, when Mr Blair congratulated the President on it.

Yesterday, Downing Street denied rumours circulating in Washington that Mr Blair urged President Bush at the dinner to show restraint in his military response. Their discussions are just not like that, according to Number 10. One official said: "It's about working out a course of action which is effective."

The themes of the Bush speech were discussed in advance with Downing Street in the past week and were debated at length during Thursday's dinner. Blair aides were particularly pleased that the President closed by summing up his strategy as pursuing "patient justice".

In the immediate aftermath of the atrocities, Mr Blair was keener than Mr Bush on the word "justice" but it now features regularly in Washington.

There is no doubt that London was alarmed – in the early days at least – by some of the language used by Mr Bush, which smacked more of revenge than justice. Downing Street declined to echo the President's "dead or alive" statement on Osama bin Laden. "It's a question of using the language most likely to help you achieve your objectives and get as many other countries as possible on board," said one Blair adviser.

Some British ministers who had private doubts about President Bush have been won over by his decision to consult before acting. On the day of the attacks, one Blair aide went to bed convinced he would wake up the next morning to radio headlines about a massive US retaliatory strike.

That the two leaders are now such "special friends" is even more remarkable given their party political differences. Bill Clinton was a natural soulmate for Mr Blair, and the New Democrats were a prototype for New Labour. Many expected relations between Britain and America to cool under a Republican President tempted by a more isolationist foreign policy.

But, in a dangerous new world, it seems everything really has changed.