Letter 'shows No 10 made pact with White House to push the Conservatives on Iraq'

Click to follow

Downing Street was accused yesterday of mobilising President George Bush to put pressure on the Conservative Party to support Tony Blair's stance on Iraq.

Downing Street was accused yesterday of mobilising President George Bush to put pressure on the Conservative Party to support Tony Blair's stance on Iraq.

As the President prepared to address the Republican Party convention in New York, senior Tories said No 10 had colluded with the White House in an attempt to ensure the Tory opposition did not break ranks with the Government over Iraq. The Tories pointed to documents presented to last year's Hutton inquiry as evidence of such an operation.

Alastair Campbell, who was Mr Blair's director of communications director and strategy, told the Prime Minister in a letter marked "restricted-personal" that the Government should use the threat of being punished by President Bush to keep the pressure on the Tories to support the Government.

On the eve of a Commons debate on Iraq in June last year, Mr Campbell wrote: "The final judgment to make, dependent on what the Tories agree today, is how hard to hit them for opportunism if they break ranks or, as is more likely, if they diddle." Crucially, he added: "They need to know there will be a Bush price to pay on that."

The letter, given to Lord Hutton's inquiry into the death of the government scientist Dr David Kelly, sheds new light on the public dispute between the White House and the Tories over Michael Howard's moves to distance his party from Mr Blair over Iraq.

It emerged last weekend that Karl Rove, one of President Bush's closest aides, warned Mr Howard in February that he would not secure a meeting with the President after he called for Mr Blair to consider his position.

Tory sources said the Campbell letter provided the clearest evidence to date of a systematic campaign by No 10 to use the White House to try to influence Tory policy on Iraq. The Tories believe Blair aides "wound up" the US administration to protest whenever Mr Howard questioned the Prime Minister's judgement on Iraq. When he did so, the Tory leader usually received letters and telephone calls from senior Republicans urging him to support Mr Blair. Tory officials believe Mr Campbell's phrase "Bush price" suggests that Downing Street and the White House were running a joint operation. They suspect Mr Blair extracted a promise from Mr Bush to punish the Tories if they failed to toe the government line and that the President kept his pledge. As Mr Bush was unlikely to follow closely day-to-day events in British politics, the Tories suspect the US "protests" to Mr Howard were triggered by the Government.

A senior aide to Mr Howard said: "Given the apparent collusion between No 10 and the White House, it just shows how right Michael was to make clear he would not be bullied."

Although ministers deny any concerted campaign with the White House, there is evidence that President Bush was so worried Mr Blair might have to resign before the Iraq war that he offered Britain the chance to opt out of the military action.

In his book Bush At War, the journalist Bob Woodward said the President was receiving regular reports from Mr Blair in the approach to the critical Commons vote on military action. One meeting, Mr Woodward wrote, agreed that "Vice-President [Dick] Cheney and Karl Rove were supposed to contact Tories in Britain to argue that they should support Blair and war."

Ministers insist the White House's anger with Mr Howard is genuine and did not need to be prompted by No 10. One said: "Bush and his allies hate people they can't rely on. They are not interested in 'left' or 'right' labels. They don't understand Howard's flip flops over Iraq and believe he should be supporting the Prime Minister.

"The Bush team are really pissed off with the Tories. Howard is persona non grata at the White House. Uniquely, he has managed to isolate the Tories from the US and the rest of Europe at the same time."

Despite the traditionally strong links between the Conservatives and the Republican Party, Mr Howard issued a tough statement at the weekend defending his right to criticise Mr Blair over Iraq.