Mr and Mrs Blair go to Washington

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Indy Politics

The paths of the two people who form the busiest couple in British politics will cross this week, half a world away in Washington, where Cherie Blair is promoting her book and her husband Britain's vision for a world free from poverty and pollution. Tomorrow, Tony Blair will venture into the lion's den, to beard George Bush on the two questions that most sharply divide Britain and the United States: aid to Africa, and global warming.

The paths of the two people who form the busiest couple in British politics will cross this week, half a world away in Washington, where Cherie Blair is promoting her book and her husband Britain's vision for a world free from poverty and pollution. Tomorrow, Tony Blair will venture into the lion's den, to beard George Bush on the two questions that most sharply divide Britain and the United States: aid to Africa, and global warming.

Publicly, British officials have been stressing the points on which London and Washington agree. They praise George Bush for having trebled the US's aid budget during his presidency, and say that the US and UK are united in their view that aid must be strictly monitored to ensure it goes into projects such as hospitals and schools, not into financing war or corruption.

Privately, the British officials preparing for the summit have been amazed and angered by the "utter intransigence" of the Bush administration. Suggestions that Mr Blair needs to be rewarded for supporting the US in Iraq have met a dismissive response: "That was then; this is now."

The Americans agree that some of the poorest African states such as Sierra Leone and Uganda should have their debts written off, but say that what is given out in debt relief should be taken back from others as part of the aid budget. And US aid to Africa is stingy by European standards: $19bn a year, or 0.16 per cent of US gross national income. The EU aid budget is already more than double that of the US, and the EU recently agreed to double it again, to $80bn by 2010. Britain is committed to pushing the aid budget up to 0.7 per cent of gross national income.

Gordon Brown's idea of creating an International Financing Facility (IFF) for Africa has been brusquely dismissed. "We have made our position pretty clear on that: that it doesn't fit our budgetary process," President Bush said last week. He reiterated his position privately to President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, who was on a three-day visit to Washington.

Mr Blair has, if anything, made even less progress with the US on combating climate change. He has already effectively adopted President Bush's minimalist agenda in an attempt to reach some kind of agreement at Gleneagles - eschewing proposals for international action to tackle the issue in favour of calls for more research and the development of cleaner technologies - but has still run into US opposition.

The Prime Minister had hoped that Mr Bush might acknowledge the fact that global warming is a problem, and that this could be spun as a success. But even this hope is fading, with the US failing to agree to a factual statement on the scientific evidence that the climate change is real. This is despite growing pressure for a change of policy in the US. Last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California announced a programme of massive cuts in the pollution that causes global warming, and several other Republican state governors have also promised action.

Several climate change measures are currently before the Senate, including a reworked version of the Climate Stewardship Act, which would have put a mandatory cap on carbon dioxide emissions, tabled two years ago by Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman. Senator Jeff Bingaman, the senior Democrat on the Senate energy committee, is also working on a proposal to require companies to slow the growth of their greenhouse gas emissions, even though the upward trend of emissions would not be halted until 2030.

In these unpromising circumstances, Mr Blair has taken the unusual step of inviting up to 20 senators to a meeting at the British embassy to put his case directly to them. A spokeswoman for Senator Bingaman said last night: "I guess [Mr Blair] is aware that the Bush administration is not interested, but he must know that does not apply to everybody else. Things can be done in Washington without the White House, especially if there is strong support in Congress."

If it all seems a poor reward for the political damage Tony Blair endured by supporting Mr Bush through the Iraq conflict, the Prime Minister can at least take comfort in the thought that expectations are now so low that any progress from this week's meeting will come as a surprise.

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