Blair would not be taken for granted if he spoke his mind

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The Independent Online

It could hardly be better timed. Standing side by side with the visiting US President in London, the British Prime Minister finally loses his patience with his guest. Asked about the special relationship, he blurts out to astonished reporters: "I fear this has become a bad relationship - a relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants - and casually ignoring all the things that really matter to Britain ... And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward I will be prepared to be much stronger and the President should be prepared for that." At which point his stunned visitor looks across at him with a mixture of anger and new-found respect.

No, you're right. It's not the Downing Street script for Tony Blair's joint media appearance with George Bush today. Instead it's Prime Minister Hugh Grant in Love Actually, coming to a cinema near you at the end of the week. The fashionable and distinctly metropolitan audience at Sunday's premiere knowingly lapped it up, by all accounts, tittering appreciatively when Billy Bob Thornton's chilly President tells his host: "I'll give you anything you ask for - as long as it's something I want to give."

Since, as in all its other aspects, the comforting world of Richard Curtis is one we'd all like to live in but don't, this won't happen of course. But it corresponds almost exactly to what the saner elements among today's mass demonstrators would like Grant's real-life counterpart to say after his talks with President Bush.

It isn't, after all, as if there will not be real differences of substance between the two men in this morning's talks. Nor are many of them likely to be fully resolved as early as this week.

Take just two. The fate of the two British prisoners in Guantanamo Bay awaiting a closed military trial which offends against all international standards, is one. Several weeks ago the Attorney General came to the conclusion that in the absence of further concessions, especially on a proper appeals procedure, the British prisoners would have to come home. There are signs that the US President has accepted in principle that this might have to happen. A critical problem, however, is what occurs if and when they do come back. Even the Government's pretty draconian anti-terrorist legislation does not provide for the detention without trial of British citizens. Could they receive a fair trial after being stigmatised in the US? Would the Crown Prosecution Service even back a prosecution, based as it would have to be in large part on secret intelligence? All this is why there has been a welter of diplomatic traffic between Washington and London since Lord Goldsmith submitted his final report to Blair, in the hope that the Administration will relent on the secretive military process it plans.

Then there is the nerdy but significant issue of European defence. Here Blair has been bravely ploughing a quite lonely furrow, with little encouragement from his own Foreign and Defence secretaries, and the active discouragement of the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Blair believes with good reason that Europeans need to work more closely on tasks that Nato doesn't want to do. At the kernel of the dispute is an argument with the French over the level of military planning, if any, allocated to a putative EU defence headquarters in Belgium, an issue which will be discussed at the Franco-British summit next Monday.

The British are hoping for an agreement which can reassure Bush that European defence will not in any way undermine Nato. Bush has conceded publicly, and is likely to repeat today, that he trusts Blair on this, albeit rather in tones of a man saying: "But if you let us down you'll finish up in several feet of concrete." But the real problem has been Rumsfeld, who sees any form of defence co-operation between France, Germany and the UK as cutting directly across his disdain for "Old Europe" and his divide-and-rule approach to the EU.

The problems are very different. On Guantanamo, Blair's instincts may well be with Bush, but he now appears to appreciate the outcry that would be provoked by leaving the two Britons to their US-planned fate. On European defence he is much more passionate. This is a man who still believes fiercely in EU-US co-operation and who still thinks that if "Old Europe" had reached agreement with the US on its approach to Iraq in September 2002 they could have exacted a bankable promise from the US to secure a just settlement for Israel-Palestine.

The terrible fractures over Iraq, the fact that Britain has stayed out of the euro, and the shift in the British political centre of gravity away from pro-Europeanism, don't make this any easier. But they don't make him any less determined either.

But while neither issue figured on Robin Cook's much more comprehensive agenda for Anglo-American relations on this page yesterday, both fulfil his criterion of being in the US's long-term interests. Both have political downsides. The British prisoners in Guantanamo Bay might have to walk free if there is no deal. But isn't the alternative of a fair trial in the US and the rule of international law an example to the rest of the world and one small means of dealing with the causes of terrorism rather than fomenting it? Maybe some in the French government would like to undermine Nato if the British let them. But isn't this, frequently exaggerated, risk worth taking in return for higher European defence spending and a greater exercise of Europe's international responsibilities? That, after all, is what Washington used to want.

And that's before we get to Iraq. If British warnings about allowing the Pentagon to run the peace had been heeded - and maybe if they had been issued more publicly - rather more progress in Iraq might be visible now. At least the Iraqi army might not have been senselessly stood down, leaving hundreds of thousands of trained, well armed men with nothing to do. Having played some part in persuading the US to hand over sovereignty more quickly to the Iraqis, Blair will no doubt be pressing Bush today to do more to bring local Sunni leaders into the embryonic political process and at least offset the brutally heavy-handed military operations in their areas.

Which comes back to Blair and his press conference. No one is questioning his right to welcome much of what Bush has been saying here, not least his clear message in yesterday's speech to the Israelis that the security fence slicing into the West Bank is setting back the cause of peace. Or that, as the President will no doubt repeat today, US troops will remain in Iraq after the handover. Or that Bush's recent speech on spreading democracy in the Middle East is worth debating. And yes, no doubt the Hugh Grant approach, seductive as it may be, is hardly conducive to good diplomacy. But candid friends are less likely to be taken for granted than those who do not speak their minds out loud.