Now is the moment to stand firm with the US, says Blair

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair said yesterday that he would not waver in his support for the United States over Iraq and the war on terrorism as he defended the state visit by President George Bush which begins tonight.

Although the growing security problems facing coalition forces in Iraq have provided a difficult backdrop to the visit, the Prime Minister insisted: "This is the right moment for us to stand firm with the United States in defeating terrorism wherever it is and delivering us safely from what I genuinely believe to be the security threat of the 21st century."

Mr Blair told the CBI's annual conference in Birmingham: "Now is not the time to waver, now is the time to see it through."

After being confronted with posters saying "Drop Bush, not bombs" on his arrival in Birmingham, Mr Blair told reporters: "It is essential that we stay in Iraq and see the job through."

Yesterday's protest by about 20 people provided a tiny foretaste of the huge demonstrations that will greet President Bush in London this week.

The Blair camp is also braced for protests when the two leaders visit the Prime Minister's Sedgefield constituency on Friday, when they will have lunch with a small group of local people.

But Mr Blair's insistence that now is "the right time" for President Bush to visit Britain has puzzled Labour MPs, many of whom remain bruised by the Iraq war and the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that were used to justify it.

Explaining Mr Blair's remark, Downing Street said yesterday: "The visit will demonstrate the depth and breadth of the relationship between our two countries. The history of that relationship is obviously a strong partnership tied by a shared history and vision of the world." Privately, one Blair aide admitted: "This a classic case of bad timing, especially given the problems on the ground in Iraq. We have just got to tough it out and, if necessary, take a short-term domestic hit. But we will win through in the end." He said the Prime Minister believed that "to cut and run now would be the worst of all worlds".

The high-profile Bush visit may also scupper Mr Blair's attempts to persuade his anti-war critics to "move on" from Iraq and his drive to switch his attention back to domestic policy. Labour's focus groups have shown that voters believe the Prime Minister has spent too much time on foreign affairs.

President Bush's visit has has been seen by some observers as a planned celebration of victory in Iraq.

In fact, Buckingham Palace issued the invitation in June 2002, three months before the two leaders are believed to have struck a deal under which the United States would pursue the "United Nations" route, but Britain agreed to go to war in Iraq if the diplomatic option failed. The Bush-Blair relationship, forged by the 11 September 11 terrorist acts in the US and cemented in Iraq, really is "special"; when they meet, the smiles and warmth that are often affected in the game of international diplomacy are genuine.

As he prepared to leave office, President Bill Clinton told Mr Blair: "Get as close to Bush as you have been to me". The Prime Minister took the advice and some Blair aides describe the relationship with the Republican President as easier than the one with his Democratic predecessor.

While Mr Blair stood shoulder to shoulder with President Bush on Iraq, President Clinton had wobbled over Kosovo, leaving some scars on his relationship with the Prime Minister. Although it may be an unlikely alliance, there is a fusion of views between the "neo- conservative" in the White House and the Labour Prime Minister attracted by the "liberal imperialism" favoured by his former foreign affairs adviser Robert Cooper, now the European Union's director general for external and politico-military affairs.

In a revealing comment before his visit, President Bush told one British interviewer that he found Mr Blair "the least political person I've dealt with." A Blair aide added: "It is not a marriage of convenience; what people should realise is that the PM really believes it."

The problem for Mr Blair is that the British public do not share his enthusiasm for President Bush.

For the first time, a YouGov survey published at the weekend found that more people (45 per cent) now believe that the US and Britain were wrong to go to war in Iraq than right (43 per cent). Asked how they viewed President Bush, 60 per cent described him as a danger to world peace, 37 per cent said he was "stupid" and 33 per cent found him "incoherent".

Such views have prompted some Blair advisers to urge the Prime Minister to pick a fight with the US President to emphasise his independence from him. It will certainly not happen this week.