Why Tony Blair can't afford a Kerry victory

At home, he wants to seem tomorrow's man. In the world at large, he will seem like yesterday's
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The Independent Online

Those who argue that Tony Blair will be embarrassed, or even upset, by a John Kerry victory this November don't know their man. The British Prime Minister will sail through a change in the US administration as if it was what he always wanted. The same rhetoric about the threat of WMD, the new world of terrorism and the need to support democracy abroad will all be employed again, only this time to a new internationalist Washington policy emphasising multilateralism and international institutions.

Those who argue that Tony Blair will be embarrassed, or even upset, by a John Kerry victory this November don't know their man. The British Prime Minister will sail through a change in the US administration as if it was what he always wanted. The same rhetoric about the threat of WMD, the new world of terrorism and the need to support democracy abroad will all be employed again, only this time to a new internationalist Washington policy emphasising multilateralism and international institutions.

The Kerry camp will be quite happy to go along with this. The anti-war Democrats such as Howard Dean may think that Blair has betrayed the cause. In private, Democrats nod their heads sadly at Tony's total commitment to the Bush cause. But the official party knows that the British Prime Minister is too important a potential asset to throw overboard now.

Blair may have lost the confidence of the British electorate, but in the US he is still highly regarded, not just as America's most loyal ally but as a man who can articulate the pain and aspirations of post 11 September in a way that their own President cannot (which is why George Bush will never really trust or reward his British friend, for all the bonhomie).

You can see the ground being laid for a Kerry victory even as No 10 briefs the press to say it would be most improper for a British government to intervene in the internal affairs of another country (not quite what they said about Iraq, or indeed other "failed states" - but that is another question). But, they add in a discreet whisper, there will be a number of senior Labour figures in Boston this week.

A Kerry victory, they say, would actually be welcome. Although Blair has been a strong supporter of Bush in public, his heart has always been in a more internationalist approach. After all, wasn't it Tony Blair who pushed for the Iraq issue to be resolved in the United Nations. A Kerry victory would see Britain and its Prime Minister in an even more active and supportive role than under Bush.

And if George Bush wins? Then the Prime Minister will ride that with equal ease, with the same rhetoric, the same claims that Britain is in a position to influence events through its special relationship, with the added tang that he will be one of the few people in the world who will still have a relationship with Bush.

Like so much of the Blair narrative, it is a thoroughly plausible case which won't be believed by anyone, except perhaps the Prime Minister himself. Of course, a Kerry victory will make a difference. How could it otherwise? US foreign policy will not alter its aims. Security and the war against terrorism remain paramount. But its means will be changed out of all recognition. Out will be Rumsfeld's vision of ad hoc "coalitions of the willing". In will come support for the UN, membership of international agreements and strong multilateral agreements.

The problem for Tony Blair is not just that he is associated with Bush and all his unilateral ways, but that he can deliver so little in this brave new world. A Democratic administration would wish a Europe that would speak with one voice. Yet Tony Blair cannot speak for either of the main European players, France and Germany, both of whom have leaders who will last well beyond the date of the next British general election.

Indeed, the British Prime Minister's recent speeches blaming France for the failure to get a second UN resolution on Iraq have only made relations more fractured. Meanwhile, political developments in Spain and Poland - and very probably Italy within the next year - have deprived him of his closest allies in the pro-war coalition. Britain has a place in Europe under Blair, but it is not at the centre, not in ways that are of much use to Washington.

Nor, after recent events, can Britain easily champion the cause of the UN in international relations, or regional groupings such as the Organisation of African Unity. In championing unilateral intervention to change the regime in Baghdad, London has forfeited an independent role in the Third World.

Even in home politics, that matters. The British like a leader who carries weight abroad, whatever their reputation at home. Mrs Thatcher was known and admired in the places Britons holidayed in, and they took satisfaction in this. For a time, Blair had a similar standing. Now he has lost it. The ejection of George Bush as President of the US, if it happens, will only make him look more like a figure left isolated by a receding tide. At home, the Prime Minister is making ever more desperate attempts to seem tomorrow's man. In the world at large, he will seem like yesterday's.

Of course, a Bush victory will carry its own burdens. It will lock London ever more closely to a Washington still liable to pursue unilateral confrontations in Iran, Syria and North Korea, and still very far from disabused with the neo-con agenda. Britain will be forced ever further down an Atlanticist future which will lead it away from the rest of the world.

But, given the choice, Blair must know that he is in too deep with Bush, and all he stands for, to welcome a change now.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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