This transatlantic alliance creates strange bedfellows

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The Independent Online

It is unusual for a newspaper article by the Leader of the Opposition to be discussed by the Cabinet but it happened yesterday when Jack Straw briefed his fellow ministers about the prospects for a new United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq.

The Foreign Secretary digressed to comment on the Tory leader's article in The Independent yesterday in which he challenged Tony Blair to air in public his criticisms of America's mistakes in post-war Iraq.

"He is playing games," Mr Straw told the Cabinet. "The only way that diplomacy works, whether on Iraq or anything else, is when people know you are not playing to the gallery."

Mr Blair and several other ministers expressed their surprise at Mr Howard's article, the clearest sign that he is repositioning the Tories on Iraq as things apparently go from bad to worse on the ground.

Had the Tory leader drawn blood? Or had he, as ministers claimed, scored an own goal? "This is a very significant moment," one minister said last night. "We have thrown the charge that he is an 'opportunist' at him and he has just confirmed it in spades."

Labour officials are convinced Mr Howard's shift is an attempt to reap some benefit from the chaos in Iraq at the 10 June European and local elections. They fear many Labour supporters will stay at home in protest over Iraq or switch to the Liberal Democrats, who have consistently opposed the war. Labour detects little sign that Iraq is helping the Tories, who strongly supported last year's war and, under Iain Duncan Smith, were even more gung-ho than Mr Blair.

Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister, who has an elephantine memory, was first to recall Mr Howard's words to a conference of Rupert Murdoch's News International executives in Cancun in March. The Tory leader told the pro-American audience that Britain should not put a cigarette paper between itself and its main ally. "Terrorists would like nothing better than to see the Western alliance splinter and break apart," Mr Howard said.

So a counter-attack was mounted by Labour and Downing Street, which briefed journalists that Mr Blair, Mr Straw and the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, had told the Cabinet that Mr Howard's approach would harm the morale of British troops in Iraq.

The Tories deny opportunism. Mr Howard has grown increasingly frustrated by Mr Blair's stonewalling over Iraq at Prime Minister's questions, believing he is using the much-vaunted "special relationship" to avoid scrutiny over Iraq.

For the Tory leader, the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US forces was a tipping point. He believes there is no inconsistency between supporting the war and criticising the handling of the peace.

Iraq has created strange political alliances. Mr Howard's demand for Mr Blair to stand up to President George Bush is shared by many Labour MPs. The message was relayed to Mr Blair nine days ago by their "shop stewards" on the Parliamentary Committee.

The following day, Mr Blair rejected their advice, telling The Independent in an interview that, at a time of "maximum difficulty" in Iraq, it would be the worst moment to "start messing around your main ally".

The Iraq crisis has also strained the normal transatlantic alliances between the political parties. Mr Blair's "shoulder to shoulder" relationship with President Bush has made him determined to keep out of the US Presidential election in November. That means keeping his distance from Labour's natural allies in the Democratic Party.

When Mr Blair visited Washington last month, he upset some Democrats by not meeting John Kerry, their Presidential candidate. Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, will try to heal the wounds in Washington next month.

Ironically, Mr Howard is one of the most pro-American MPs at Westminster, having long-standing Democrat friends as well as Republican allies. Karl Rove, President Bush's senior political adviser, has formed a strong bond with Liam Fox, the Tories' co-chairman.

Despite Mr Blair's loyalty to President Bush, Mr Rove is advising the Tories on how to defeat him at the general election. Politics is a funny game.