The Week in Politics: Will Bush outlast the man he's 'proud to call a friend'?

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The Independent Online

When it became clear that George Bush had won a second term, aides of Tony Blair ringed January 2009 in their mental calendar. That is when the President must leave office. It is roughly when Mr Blair would like to stand down too.

This coincidence gave Blair advisers some comfort as they mulled over how to exploit the "strong relationship" the Prime Minister trumpeted as he congratulated the President on his victory. A four-year partnership on global terrorism, Iraq, Africa, climate change and, crucially, the Middle East peace process would provide a fitting and lasting legacy for both leaders, optimists in the Blair circle argued.

The limits of such dreams were cruelly exposed just 24 hours later when news reached Downing Street that three soldiers in the Black Watch regiment had been killed after being controversially redeployed in Iraq at America's request. Yet again, Mr Blair has been brought crashing back to reality by terrible events in Iraq. Suddenly, January 2009 looks a very long time away.

Although he looked shaken by the tragedy yesterday, the Prime Minister will not lose his resolve: he has invested too much in Iraq to turn back now. As he reminded us in a newspaper interview yesterday, he did not join the President in his "war on terror" out of "blind loyalty" but because he really believes in it. "Maybe that makes it worse for people," he told The Times. Many readers of this newspaper will agree.

Mr Blair will try to convince his progressive and liberal critics that he can achieve more of what they would like to see by working with President Bush. He even argued yesterday that the neo-conservative agenda of the Bush team on extending democracy in the Middle East was actually a progressive agenda "in different language". His opponents will need some convincing about that.

There is a genuine hope in Downing Street that Bush Mark 2 will be a different animal, freed of the pressure to win again. Second-term presidents are less dangerous and radical, say insiders, citing Ronald Reagan. President Bush may have other ideas. As he said on Thursday: "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and I now intend to spend it."

Although a John Kerry victory would have made it easier for Mr Blair to draw the proverbial line under Iraq, the Prime Minister has not given up hope that the re-election of President Bush will enable his critics to "move on", to look forward rather than back.

By saying that he intends to serve a full third term but not a fourth, the Prime Minister has temporarily made Britain's open-ended system more like America's, where Presidents can serve only two four-year fixed terms. As one upbeat Blair aide told me: "Both leaders now have a finite period; that might be a constructive dynamic."

Mr Blair's fate now seems inextricably linked to President Bush's approach. A breakthrough in the Middle East peace process would certainly transform Mr Blair's troubled relationship with his own party - a tangible gain after so many false starts and dashed hopes. But Labour MPs are sceptical; they trust President Bush a lot less than Mr Blair does.

His MPs fear Mr Blair's closeness to the President will harm Labour at the general election expected next May. The Liberal Democrats will certainly deploy plenty of "Blair and Bush" photographs in their election material, which they could not have done after a Kerry victory. Unless the President really does change his spots, he is not going to become suddenly popular in Britain.

Mr Blair's "move on" message applies to France and Germany as well as opponents of the war in Britain. At an EU summit in Brussels yesterday, he urged his fellow leaders to accept the "new reality" that President Bush had won a second term.

Despite his bruises over Iraq, the Prime Minister has still not given up hope of being the link man between Europe and the US. He has repeatedly rejected advice to drop his analogy of being the "bridge" between the two continents from influential advisers including Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador in Washington, and the diplomat Robert Cooper, an architect of Mr Blair's "liberal imperialism".

Some Blair critics, including Robin Cook, believe Britain would secure more leverage on Washington by working wholeheartedly through the EU rather than going it alone. So do the leaders of France and Germany, who might well have "moved on" over Iraq if Senator Kerry had won but show little sign of doing so now.

It is dangerous to draw too many lessons from America for Britain's election. The issues that appealed to America's "moral majority" will not loom large here. Mr Blair intends to follow the President's lead by playing the "security" card: the Queen's Speech on 23 November will include at least six "safety and security" Bills including identity cards, terrorism, serious crime and anti-social behaviour. But Britain has thankfully not had a "9/11" terrorist outrage and ministers now realise the limits of such a one-club approach: they say the speech's other big theme will be measures to create "opportunities".

Iraq did not damage George Bush as much as it might have done. No one knows yet how big a factor it will be in Britain, but President Bush's re-election surely makes it more likely to play.

Barring impeachment or illness, the President knows that he has four more years in power. Although in theory Mr Blair can stay longer, he cannot feel as confident of serving another four years. I have a growing feeling that the President will outlast the man he is "proud to call friend".