Kerry is a natural ally, but fear of isolation leaves Blair conflicted

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Indy Politics

When George Bush won power in 2000, the outgoing president, Bill Clinton, advised his friend Tony Blair to "stay close" to the incoming one. The Prime Minister has certainly done that. Whatever the private doubts in the British government about America's tactics on the ground in Iraq, it is a safe bet that Mr Blair and President Bush will again be "shoulder to shoulder" at their talks at the White House on Friday.

When George Bush won power in 2000, the outgoing president, Bill Clinton, advised his friend Tony Blair to "stay close" to the incoming one. The Prime Minister has certainly done that. Whatever the private doubts in the British government about America's tactics on the ground in Iraq, it is a safe bet that Mr Blair and President Bush will again be "shoulder to shoulder" at their talks at the White House on Friday.

Mr Blair will have three items on his agenda - Iraq, the war on terrorism and the Middle East peace process. His fourth goal will be to avoid doing anything that might drag him into the US presidential election.

So there will be no meeting with John Kerry, the man who will be Democratic Party candidate and, as such, favoured by the Labour Party. Conveniently, Mr Kerry is "out of Washington" for the Easter recess. Clearly, the Prime Minister does not want to do anything that might offend Mr Bush at a critical time in Iraq.

Mr Blair knows that John Major got himself into a pickle when Mr Clinton believed his Tory government had helped the Republicans in the 1992 US campaign by trawling Home Office files about his days at Oxford. Mr Major insisted it was untrue, but the damage was done.

So Mr Blair has ordered the Labour Party to remain at arm's length from its natural allies in the Democrats so as not to offend President Bush. It is a far cry from the days when Philip Gould, Mr Blair's pollster, was installed at the Clinton campaign headquarters at Little Rock in 1992. Contacts will continue but below the waterline.

Most of Mr Blair's ministers believe a Kerry presidency would be a good thing. But some Labour strategists regard him as unproven, a bit of a leap in the dark. For all Mr Bush's faults, he is a strong leader.

So there are divided opinions among Blair's advisers about whether a Kerry or Bush victory would be best. On the face of it, the defeat of President Bush by a man who had questioned his case for war in Iraq would be a big setback for the Prime Minister.

But there is another school of thought: without the unpopular, rather dangerous George Bush, Mr Blair would be free to be his own man, and perhaps given another chance by liberal voters who detest him for being "Bush's poodle".

The Prime Minister has always believed that British politics follows the American curve. A Bush defeat would be seen as a rejection of the war in Iraq and could leave Mr Blair isolated in the world and exposed when he faces the electorate next year.

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