Meeting with 'Bush's brain' tops Tory visit to US

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Not Tony Blair of course, but that variety of politician rarely spotted in Washington of late: senior members of the Conservative party.

Last night, William Hague, George Osborne and Liam Fox wrapped up their two-day visit to the US. Its purpose had been to mend the rift that opened when Michael Howard, as leader, criticised the Iraq war - earning an angry phone call from Karl Rove telling Mr Howard he could forget any idea of visiting the White House and seeing President Bush.

It seems, on the surface at least, to have worked.

The Heritage, a conservative think-tank boasting its own Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom, is friendly territory for the Tories. But so too over the past two days has been all of Washington - including Mr Rove, who was first on the trio's calling list on Thursday.

The scheduled 25-minute session at the White House stretched to an amiable three-quarters of an hour. Messrs Fox, Hague and Osborne were not permitted to have their photo taken outside the West Wing where Mr Bush's deputy chief of staff has his office. But wounded relations are healed. "Purely a personal matter," said Mr Fox - whose acquaintance with the man dubbed "Bush's Brain" goes back to his days in Texas - of the tiff with Mr Howard.

The problem for the Tories here is that no one knows who they are - an understandable confusion given that the party has had five different leaders in nine years, and that Mr Blair has sucked the room empty of whatever publicity oxygen exists for British politicians.

But the trio didn't do badly. They were due to see Stephen Hadley, Mr Bush's national security adviser but he, it seems, was abruptly summoned out of town. However Mr Fox, the shadow Defence Secretary, spent yesterday at the Pentagon, while Mr Hague, shadow Foreign Secretary, was due to see Condoleezza Rice.

As for the shadow Chancellor, Mr Osborne held talks with John Snow the Treasury Secretary, and yesterday gained the distinction of being surely the first British politician to see the new Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke. What should he ask him about, an Osborne aide wondered. 'Try inverted yield curves,' a reporter helpfully suggested.

But even though the natural order has been restored, and a right-of-centre British party is once again talking to a right-of-centre US administration, something has changed. In a notably forthright speech to the SIAS foreign policy institute, Mr Hague warned how the US and its closest ally Britain were facing a "critical erosion" of their moral authority around the world, because of Guantanamo Bay and the documented prisoner abuse in Iraq.

"Mistakes have been made on Iraq," he declared. "We still believe it was the right thing to do but in the handling of Iraq over the past couple of years, many mistakes have been made." The Tory delegation was raising concerns about Iraq and other issues, he noted separately, but in a "civilised" way.

Strikingly too, there seems no hurry to set a firm date for a visit by David Cameron himself. "All in good time," murmured a member of the trio.