It was David Burnside, the sharp, hardline Ulster Unionist MP for South Antrim, who asked arguably the most interesting - and politically significant - question of Tony Blair in the Commons last Wednesday. "What is in the best interest of the United Kingdom: the re-election of pro-war President Bush, or the election of anti-war Senator John Kerry?"
Never mind that Burnside rather over-simplified the position of the Democrat front-runner. Or that the Prime Minister, no doubt wisely, gave an answer, of studied blandness which made clear his unwillingness to intervene one jot on either side. Burnside was still touching one of the big imponderables of the next eight months: How, if at all, will the election in the US affect the fortunes of the national leader who has proved, in the most difficult and costly of circumstances, to be its greatest international ally?
Given that the most important - as well as the most controversial - decision of the second Blair term was to join a US led war, this is a much more complicated question than it would usually be. Normally, the vanquishing of a Republican President by a Democrat would be of unalloyed benefit to Labour. The Clinton victory of 1992 - which followed, and perhaps even learned a few modest lessons from, Kinnock's defeat earlier that year - was something of a consolation prize for the British left. It demonstrated that the right was not as unstoppable as it had been for much of the 1980s. It showed that it could be overcome even if the challenge to it had to be recast in a more centrist mould.
And it was much more than a psychological fillip; Blair's answer to Burnside on Wednesday referred implicitly to the cautionary tale of how John Major ran into some trouble with the new US President by having lent a helping hand - albeit one whose effect was widely exaggerated - to George Bush Sr. But this only spurred Blair as Opposition leader to ensure that New Labour learnt a great deal from the Clinton people. Both Kinnock and John Smith had been wary of such transatlantic contacts. But for Blair the porousness between his advisers and Clinton's was wholly welcome.
Now, of course, the rules are different. Long before 11 September 2001, let alone the invasion of Iraq, Blair had put real energy into his relationship with Bush. But it's the extent to which Iraq will or won't dominate the campaign that makes the Burnside question worth asking. One of the issues which has so far figured in the US campaign, surviving the eclipse of the explicitly anti-war Howard Dean, is the use of intelligence to make the case for war, one on which Blair and Bush seem joined at the hip. Kerry, of course, can claim to have been persuaded to support the war by a case which now looks infinitely weaker than it did.
On one level, the fact that it's another war, Vietnam, that has in recent days dominated the US campaign, has little relevance to the British electoral scene. But, indirectly, the argument about Vietnam does resonate a little. The cases are very different. If nothing else, however, Vietnam, as Kerry well knows, is a reminder that not every war assumed by US Presidents to be right is judged by history to be so.
Those on the British left who opposed the Vietnam war in the 1960s and were also in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament turn out to have been correct about the first, just as they were wrong - given the part played by deterrence in first maintaining the peace and secondly in hastening the collapse of communism - about the second.
More potently, however, Kerry, as a man who both fought in Vietnam and came to oppose that war, has put Bush on the defensive through being not only right but unquestionably brave. An additional and scarcely spoken subtext is that politicians who do not know the horrors of war at first hand may be just a little readier to commit their countries' troops than those who do. All of which may make it more difficult for Blair to escape the shadow of Iraq.
It is nevertheless dangerous to overestimate the impact of all this on Blair's own fortunes. If Blair's conduct on Iraq is so electorally crippling, how come, it's worth asking on the eve of tomorrow's Berlin summit of three, Chancellor Schroder and President Chirac are not reaping untold benefits from their stand against the war? In seeking to focus on domestic concerns, including public service delivery, Blair is almost certainly going with the grain of a public opinion - at least beyond Westminster and a seriously alienated metropolitan intelligentsia - which is manifestly more interested in how governments affect their everyday lives than in reliving all the arguments about the war, let alone the intricacies of the US election.
Sir Peter Gershon's leaked and highly radical efficiency review, ordered by the Treasury and No 10, is a single but spectacular example of an imminent step change in domestic politics. Whatever its impact on Oliver Letwin's new Tory approach to tax and spending, the Gershon review suggests some daunting challenges for the Government, not least in wholesale civil service cuts. But by envisaging savings of up to £15bn it also offers a route through what had seemed increasingly like a third term impasse; how to sustain high levels of public spending, including on new programmes like those for the under-fives as well as health and education, without electorally unacceptable tax rises?
The reality is that domestic politics may increasingly assert itself here in the coming months, and perhaps even in the US election too. It would do so even more swiftly if Iraq itself was to become, as it shows little sign of doing at present, a less dangerous country.
But this brings us back to the effect of the US election on Britain. Blair can do little to influence the outcome. But if a Democratic President were elected - and that is very far from certain - it would surely be in the interests of a Labour Prime Minister, even one who had become so close to his incumbent opponent.
It may well be that a Kerry foreign policy would not be as different from a Bush one as some people imagine. But from everything the Senator has said so far, it is impossible to imagine that he would not pursue a more multilateralist approach than the hawks around Bush have frequently wanted - the very approach that Blair has tried with the most partial of success to urge on the US President.
But even if that were not the case, Blair would be more comfortable, not least in his relationship with his own party, if his association with Bush became history. This is not to say that all Bush's foreign policy is wrong - which it isn't - or even that history, as Blair still believes, will not finally vindicate the invasion of Iraq. But it is to state the realpolitik here.
The paradox is that if the Democrats surge against Bush to the point of victory, it could exacerbate the Prime Minister's difficulties in the short term while offering the real chance of respite post November.Reuse content