Howard's message to Blair: Time to stand up to Bush

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Michael Howard breaks ranks with Tony Blair over Iraq today by calling on the Prime Minister to speak out publicly against the United States when he disagrees with President George Bush.

Writing in The Independent, Mr Howard urges Mr Blair to act as a "candid" friend to the US and to abandon his refusal to criticise America's mistakes in Iraq since the end of last year's war. Although Mr Howard says it was right to remove Saddam Hussein, his criticism of Mr Blair's strategy is his strongest over Iraq since he became Tory leader.

Mr Howard says the Anglo-American alliance should remain the anchor of British

foreign policy but insists the partnership "should always be a candid one".

He claims Mr Blair has created "a new doctrine", under which any advice he offers on US policy is made in private and any disagreement kept secret.

"This has the convenient advantage, from his point of view, that we never know whether and when he offers advice, or whether and when he disagrees.

"Of course, some discussions between heads of government must remain confidential. But not all," he says. Accusing the Government of making policy on Iraq "on the hoof", he says there has been "a lack of clarity, lack of competence and lack of candour", and declares: "More clarity, more competence and more candour would help enormously."

There are still unanswered questions about the handover of sovereignty on 30 June, he adds.

Mr Howard's intervention leaves Mr Blair increasingly isolated over his "shoulder-to-shoulder" relationship with President Bush.

It became clear yesterday that those in the Labour Party who had doubts about the policy included John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. Mr Prescott questioned Mr Blair's view that remaining publicly loyal to the US would pay dividends in the long run. He said: "You can't achieve anything without America, but the gamble is that if you don't get what you want, then you get condemned in the short run and the long run."

Asked if Mr Blair should have criticised Israel in recent weeks, Mr Prescott told The Times: "I certainly defend his right as leader to make a judgement and I will also defend my right to tell him what I think about it."

Although the Prime Minister is refusing to change his pro-Bush stance, he has authorised Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, to rebuild bridges with the Democratic Party on a visit to Washington next month, during which he may meet its presumptive presidential nominee, John Kerry.

The Democrats are said to be "feeling sore" about Mr Blair's approach. The peace moves will be seen as an attempt by Mr Blair to show Labour MPs that he is aware of their concerns about his closeness to President Bush.

In his article, Mr Howard recalls that Margaret Thatcher sometimes aired her differences with Ronald Reagan in public despite their special relationship. He cites her criticism when the US invaded Grenada, a Commonwealth country, and when President Reagan offered to scrap US nuclear weapons within 10 years at a failed summit with the Soviet General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, in Reykjavik in 1986.

Denying that criticising the post-war situation in Iraq is unpatriotic, Mr Howard says: "My party's support for the war does not mean that we are disqualified from asking legitimate questions about the conduct of events in Iraq now.

"Nor does it mean we should be inhibited from criticising. And to suggest, as Mr Blair sometimes does, that any such criticism involves a failure to 'support our troops' is to demean the very democracy of which we are so proud."

It is understood that Mr Howard believes Britain should have publicly opposed the US over its decision to scrap the Iraqi army and police force after the war and should have demanded that a British official be appointed as a high-powered deputy to Paul Bremer, the American civilian administrator in Iraq.

The Conservatives' decision to move away from their bipartisanship on Iraq will be seen by Labour as an attempt to exploit the current crisis at the European and local elections on 10 June.

Labour officials believe the Tories' support for war will prevent them reaping an electoral dividend from the issue.

Further Conservative criticism came yesterday from John Major, the former prime minister, who said holding elections in Iraq next January would be a "pretty Herculean task". Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he added: "The first, pre-eminent point is to stabilise the security situation. If that does not happen, nothing can follow. You can't hold elections in the midst of chaos."

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, wrote to Mr Blair last night asking him to confirm there was "some distance" between his desire to see "full authority" transferred to the Iraqis next month and America's position.

He asked the Prime Minister: "Can you also confirm that the UK will be supporting the maximalist position in negotiations at the United Nations, including Iraqi control of economic instruments such as oil revenues and judicial affairs, including prisons."

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