Mr Blair goes to Washington and comes home with what, exactly?

No agreement to send a special envoy to the Middle East. No London peace talks. So what did Britain gain from the invitation to the Oval office? An insight into how the PM will fight the election, reveals Francis Elliot
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'What I really like about the President," Tony Blair told a broadcaster before the camera rolled for an interview on Friday, "is his wonderfully uncluttered mind." It is possible that Mr Blair meant genuinely to compliment George W Bush but there is no doubt that the aside, given in a private conversation overheard, came at the end of a frustrating visit for the Prime Minister.

In Washington's sheeting rain he had tried, but failed to get Mr Bush to commit himself to appointing an envoy to the Middle East and to help to push for a peace summit to be held in London. The latter, particularly, is close to Mr Blair's heart, as President Bush inadvertently revealed in the pair's press conference in the East Room of the White House. The two men had had "long discussions" on the option of a conference, said President Bush, but he offered only the most conditional of support for the idea.

Britain's inconsequential status had already been made abundantly clear in the preceding press briefing for the White House press corps. Having dealt in short order with Mr Blair's visit, Scott McClellan, the President's press secretary, turned to the more newsworthy matter of what to name the two turkeys traditionally pardoned by the President at Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, out of the window, Mr Blair's most senior aides, Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, Sally Morgan, his political secretary, and Sir Nigel Sheinwald, his foreign affairs adviser, could be seen scampering through the rain to a back door in the West Wing.

It was a damp collection of Downing Street aides that gathered in the Oval Office to face their opposite numbers, including Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Adviser, and Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, for talks on Friday morning. In any case, the real business had been done the night before when Mr Blair had spent two hours "one-on-one" with the President.

We are told the two discussed climate change, Iran, Afghanistan, British detainees in Guantanamo, and Africa over soup and fish in President Bush's private residence. On climate change the Prime Minister is beginning to edge towards Mr Bush's position that new technologies are the way to tackle global warming. On Africa, aides say weakly that the US is "aware" that it is a British priority for the forthcoming G8 summit that Britain hosts this summer.

The position on the four remaining detainees in Camp X-ray is even less hopeful. Asked whether there had been any progress on deciding their future, a spokesman snapped that there was "no story" in the issue. Indeed, Mr Blair himself seemed to set back the prospects for their return to Britain by stressing the need to ensure British security. In an interview on Sky TV, he said: "We have got to make sure our own security is going to be properly protected if we have people back in our country. There have been incidents of people who have been back and been in difficulties again." Downing Street later denied he was suggesting that any of the released detainees are suspected of any illegal actions.

However, it was the Middle East that dominated Mr Blair's visit to Washington. The death of Yasser Arafat, although treated with respect in Britain, opened an undeniable opportunity as Mr Blair prepared to travel to the US. Arafat had become an insuperable block to the "road-map" for peace in the Middle East - something that President Bush had made clear to Mr Blair before his re-election.

The gulf in perceptions of the former Palestinian leader in Europe and in the United States was graphically illustrated by the treatment of his funeral in the New York Post. A front-page picture of his grieving widow was captioned "The Arafat Lady Sings". Although President Bush extended his sympathies to the Palestinian people on Friday he was quick to say Arafat's passing marked an opportunity.

While careful not to raise expectations too far, there was no doubting the mood of optimism in briefings by Downing Street aides ahead of the visit as No 10 sensed a chance to push Washington to engage properly. There was talk of work-plans as well as nods and winks on a London conference. However, once within the confines of the White House, such notions were quietly smothered by senior US administration officials.

It was notable, for example, that Vice-President Dick Cheney, a wily and determined opponent of Mr Blair's Middle East diplomatic adventures, made an unscheduled visit to the pair's public appearance. There was a discreet game of musical chairs just before the press conference began as White House officials, caught on the hop, suddenly had to accommodate the Vice-President in the front row.

Pressed on the flight back to Britain for concrete evidence of what the Prime Minister had actually achieved on the visit, an aide was left pointing to the President's agreeing to a "timetable" for the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of his second term of office. It was extracted from a reluctant Mr Bush during questioning by British journalist at the press conference. Suspicions of a Downing Street ambush were raised, since the journalist in question had been seen deep in conversation with a No 10 aide moments earlier.

When Mr Bush had been asked if it was his firm intention that by the end of his second term there should be two states - Israel and Palestine - existing side-by-side, there was a long pause before he replied. "I think it is fair to say that I believe we've got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state, and I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States on such a state. I believe it is in the interest of the world that a truly free state develop," he said. "I know it is in the interest of the Palestinian people that they can live in a society where they can express their opinion freely, a society where they can educate their children without hate, a society in which they can realise their dreams if they happen to be an entrepreneur. I know it's in Israel's interest that a free state evolve on her border ... The first step of that is going to be the election of a new president, and my fervent hope is that the president embraces the notion of a democratic state."

It was enough for Downing Street to spin a positive headline.

The greater significance of the trip may be in the growing confidence with which the President and Prime Minister share an evangelism for democracy as a guarantor of world peace. This was what could unite a "progressive politician" with a "Republican president", Mr Blair opined at the press conference.

Such trivial differences of tribal affiliation paled into insignificance against the gushing tribute the US President paid to his British friend. "He's a strong, capable man. I admire him a lot," Mr Bush began, before warming to his theme. "You know why? When he tells you something, he means it. You spend much time with politics, you'll know there's some people around this kind of line of work where they tell you something, they don't mean it. When he says something, he means it. He's a big thinker. He's got a clear vision. And when times get tough, he doesn't wilt. When they, when the criticism starts to come his way - I suspect that might be happening on occasion - he stands [for] what he believes in. That's the kind of person I like to deal with. I'm a lucky person, a lucky President, to be holding office at the same time this man holds the Prime Ministership."

It is an endorsement received far more warmly in Downing Street than might be supposed. For Mr Blair has let it be known that he has given up hope of seeking to move the news agenda from Iraq on to domestic concerns. There is, he says, no point in "bewailing" the fact that government announcements on public-service reform can be swept away without warning by bad news in Basra or Baghdad.

With a general election expected in May, Mr Blair has been persuaded that he must recalibrate his campaign accordingly. It will, say senior figures, be fought around the twin themes of opportunity and security. Labour's election planners have taken careful note of how John Howard in Australia and Mr Bush have fought and won as strong leaders in an uncertain world.

They are already seeking to link together a group of "negative" issues - from crime to anti-social behaviour to the war on terror - and to present Mr Blair as "tough" on them all. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, hinted at the new strategy in a speech yesterday in which he said that optimism was only possible when security had been achieved. "You don't give people hope by dismissing their fears," he said, ahead of the Queen's Speech next week, which will be dominated by "safety and security" measures.

In a speech at the Mansion House tomorrow, Mr Blair is expected to develop the theme: this time with reference to the US-Europe relationship. Only deepening co-operation between the two can help to turn the tide against terrorism, he will say. It is a message that will be repeated when President Bush visits next year. The White House announced yesterday that the President plans to travel to Europe in February and does not rule out a British leg to the tour. It is a trip that would place him centre- stage in the run-up to the general election. Although hardly likely to help to motivate Labour activists opposed to the Iraq war, such a visit would prove deeply uncomfortable for Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, who is persona non grata at President Bush's White House.

It will not be difficult for Labour to portray Mr Howard's multiple positions on the Iraq conflict in the same sort of unflattering light as that which Mr Bush's election team shone on "flip-flopping" John Kerry.

When Mr Blair was tackled about what he has received from President Bush in return for his support for the Iraq war, he said: "We're not fighting the war against terrorism because we are an ally of the United States. We are an ally of the United States because we believe in fighting this war against terrorism." For his part, Mr Bush said: "These are troubled times. It's a tough world. What this world needs is steady, rock-solid leaders who stand on principle. And that's what the Prime Minister means to me."

Payback doesn't come more generous.

Blair took pride in being the first leader to visit bush after his victory. Here Francis Elliott considers what he wanted, and what he achieved

THE MIDDLE EAST

The realisation of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict requires massive US commitment. Although the succession to Arafat requires careful handling, Mr Blair wanted a "strong signal of intent with depth" from Mr Bush. The despatch of a "big-hitting" envoy from the US with genuine presidential authority would have been greeted with jubilation by Downing Street. The real prize, however, remains a full international peace conference, preferably held in London, with full US backing and with the implied threat of economic pressure on the Israeli government to fulfil its side of the "road-map" deal.

Verdict: The rhetoric was good and there was even a "five-point plan", but the absence of concrete commitments will fuel the cynical belief that the US is not serious about the road-map. President Bush's tone, apparently lecturing the Palestinian people on the virtues of democracy, and implying that the US would work with Arafat's successor provided they elect the right one, will not have assisted the chances of any candidates prepared to engage in negotiations with the Israelis. However, Downing Street did cling to a supposed four-year "timetable" for the two-state solution. But this was pushing the limits of interpreting what President Bush said in answer to a journalist: "I'd like to see it done in four years. I think it is possible."

IRAQ

All efforts are being directed towards ensuring that the elections go ahead as planned in January. There are reports of differences over who should be allowed to stand as well as continued disquiet in some British military quarters about American methods of tackling the insurgency. The deployment of the Black Watch near Baghdad makes it more vital than ever that Britain has a significant say.

Verdict: We learned little about what was discussed so it is difficult to assess what influence Mr Blair had.

CLIMATE CHANGE

This was a golden opportunity to take progress on what Mr Blair calls "long term the single most important issue" facing the world - and one he has put at the top of the agenda for his presidency of the EU and G8. It was a chance to leave the old arguments behind and engage the US on discussing the much deeper pollution cuts that scientist agree will be needed over the next decade.

Verdict: An opportunity missed. He has allowed the President to push him towards Mr Bush's own "solution".

GUANTANAMO BAY

The refusal of the United States to release to Britain the four remaining detainees held in legal limbo in the military camp in Cuba is a running sore in relations. Even Cherie Blair has been openly critical of the quality of justice being offered the detainees. Allegations of abuse have been made by at least one Briton detained in Guantanamo.

Verdict: No progress whatsoever and, indeed, Mr Blair seemed to justify the impasse by suggesting that detainees already returned are "causing difficulties".

AFRICA

Tony Blair has described Africa as a "scar on the conscience of the world", and said action on the causes of poverty will, along with climate change, be the two main issues Britain will promote during its G8 chairmanship. His Commission on Africa is working on proposals to strengthen democracy and economic opportunity on the continent. They will need significant inputs of cash and political will by the West.

Verdict: Africa was raised only briefly. Mr Blair has yet to make progress pressing Mr Bush to support fair trade.

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