The 'special relationship': The President will save himself first

The two leaders are bound to each other - and both their careers are on the line

Tony Blair's predicament has been much noted in the US, and could yet play into an unravelling of George Bush's presidency. But in Washington it is very much a subplot of the consuming Iraq drama.

American officials recognise the price the Prime Minister has paid for his loyalty to Mr Bush, whose international unpopularity even the most blinkered Republican has been forced to acknowledge. Nor does anyone dispute that the two leaders are bound to each other.

Were Mr Blair to pull Britain, the most loyal and most important of America's allies, out of the Iraq coalition, the repercussions would be devastating for Mr Bush. But the Prime Minister is equally a hostage of the President. Only if the British Government is publicly supportive of Washington, Mr Blair contends, can it hope to wield influence in private.

In making this argument, however, Mr Blair has placed himself in a position where he cannot publicly criticise anything the wildly unpopular President does.

And whatever private concessions he has gained from Mr Bush, he has been unable to get any change whatsoever out of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the prime architects of Washington's failed policy on Iraq. They are, of course, geographically far closer than the Prime Minister to Mr Bush's ear.

But Mr Rumsfeld himself is now in huge trouble over the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, and at least one thoughtful commentator has speculated that in order to preserve British support, he might be sacrificed by Mr Bush to save Mr Blair.

"Blair is in a unique position to allow him to ask Bush to fire Rumsfeld," Fred Barnes wrote in The Weekly Standard, the house magazine of the neo-conservatives. "True, this would be presumptuous and highly unlikely. But what if Blair's domestic political problems deepened, and he needed some sacrifice by Bush to show he's not the President's poodle and thus to maintain the alliance? It's not inconceivable that Rumsfeld could be that sacrifice." This so-called "Tony Blair scenario" is a very long shot. But the main reason that our Prime Minister's problems do not resonate more here, is that Mr Bush is in almost as bad shape - and his date with voters is less than six months off.

True, America was more enthusiastic about the war than Britain, where only apocalyptic prime ministerial warnings about Iraq's WMD arsenal briefly convinced a public that now feels it has been conned.

But Mr Bush too is now in the worst trouble of his political career. His approval ratings have plunged to the mid-40s in the latest polls, the lowest of his presidency, and a level that historically portends election defeat for an incumbent. By a 58-41 per cent margin, Americans disapprove of his handling of the Iraq crisis. A majority thinks the war was not worth it, although voters are not quite ready to say outright that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake.

Nor do the polls reflect the full impact of the prison abuse scandal and of last week's beheading of Nicholas Berg. Together, these could be for Mr Bush what the Tet offensive was for Lyndon Johnson and American public opinion about the Vietnam War back in 1968.