Howard fury over White House ban

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Indy Politics

Michael Howard last night accused George Bush of seeking to protect Tony Blair in an extraordinary row sparked by news that the Tory leader has been banned from the White House.

Michael Howard last night accused George Bush of seeking to protect Tony Blair in an extraordinary row sparked by news that the Tory leader has been banned from the White House.

Mr Howard hit back after it emerged that his calls for Mr Blair to stand down over the Iraq war have enraged the US President. The simmering feud was laid bare yesterday as it emerged that Karl Rove, Mr Bush's most powerful official, told the Tory leader that he "could forget about meeting the President".

Mr Howard last night launched an unprecedented attack on Mr Bush. "If some people in the White House, in their desire to protect Mr Blair, think I am too tough on Mr Blair or too critical of him, they are entitled to their opinion. But I shall continue to do my job as I see fit," he said.

Senior Conservatives last night admitted that relations between the leader and Mr Bush broke down in February after Mr Howard called for the Prime Minister's resignation in a Commons debate.

In a furious message to Mr Howard's office Mr Rove said: "You can forget about meeting the President full stop. Don't bother coming, you are not meeting him."

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that it was the first of a series of rows between the Tory leader and Mr Bush's most senior aide to have flared this year.

Mr Rove is known in Washington as a ruthless political operator for whom loyalty to his boss is paramount.

Some Tories suspect a Downing Street dirty tricks operation to embarrass Mr Howard on the eve of the Republican Convention in New York. "You have to wonder how this got out when it did," said one.

Liam Fox, the Tory chairman, is leading a delegation of Conservative MPs to attend the formal adoption of Mr Bush as the party's presidential candidate. He now finds himself at the centre of a furious row between the two parties, hitherto strong ideological allies.

Mr Howard is the first Tory leader in modern times to have been denied a meeting with a Republican president. Traditionally, the Tories and Republicans have been considered natural allies.

William Hague was invited to the convention in 2000 at which Mr Bush was first selected as candidate, and even Iain Duncan Smith was granted two audiences. Mr Blair's unstinting support for Mr Bush has led to a recasting of traditional transatlantic alliances forged on the right by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

It is the Tory leader's position as an outcast from the Bush White House that is now likely to gain the most attention, however.

Labour is bound to seize on the rift as evidence that Mr Howard is suffering the consequences of "opportunistic" attacks on the Government.

Some observers even predicted that the row could spell the beginning of the end of his leadership, which has been dogged in recent months by a failure to overtake Labour in the polls.

Mr Howard's most recent campaign, against political correctness, launched last week, was criticised as being like something from One Foot in the Grave. Others insist that Mr Howard will gain credibility for his stance.

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