"Where has Harold Wilson gone?" they used to chant. "Crawling to the Pent-a-gon." This was a caricature, then as now. But it reflects quite well the atavistic tradition of anti-Americanism on parts of the Labour left. Much of it has disappeared, for good. But it would be hardly surprising if it didn't rear its head again at times like this. The US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, a hawk with a history of distaste for the British Labour Party, is welcomed in Downing Street amid genuinely alarming stories about the administration's alleged willingness to contemplate nuclear war against rogue states, and shortly after reported splits in the Cabinet over military action against Iraq.
So what's happening? The Cabinet's debate on Iraq on Thursday last week was not quite the no-holds-barred confrontation between hawks and doves it was billed as being. It was nevertheless significant for taking place at all in a Cabinet famously unused to collective discussion of any kind. The previous week, David Blunkett had proposed a general discussion on prospects of action against Iraq, a topic by then already exercising much of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It was postponed for a week because the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was out of the country. The Home Secretary, privy to a lot of intelligence, has unwimpish views about – say – tackling chemical and biological warfare. But he has a locus in discussing the means, as the cabinet minister most exposed to the agitating impact of Middle Eastern affairs on Britain's Muslim population.
Robin Cook's intervention was infused with the expertise appropriate to a clever former foreign secretary. It was also somewhat gnomic, apparently readable either as a fairly orthodox statement or as giving himself the room to oppose military action in the future if he chose. Or possibly both. But for the most part, the meeting was quite sober, its tone to some extent pre-empted by its chairman. One participant recalls Tony Blair making clear at one point that "the management has not lost its marbles". But even if these weren't the exact words he used, it was certainly the general drift of a remark with which he reassured those present that he had not suddenly forgotten about the dangers besetting a military enterprise in Iraq.
Mr Blair, it is said, was also at pains on Thursday to stress the importance of the parallel quest for a negotiated settlement to the Israel-Palestinian war. This, by all accounts, was a dominant theme of the contributions round the cabinet table. The discussion reflected real frustration among ministers with an interest in the issue at the failure of the US to use its influence, first and foremost with Israel, to secure a settlement based on Arab recognition of the state of Israel in return for the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and the recognition of a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem the capital of both.
They are not alone. In a thoughtful speech another British former foreign secretary, the Conservative Lord Hurd, recently acknowledged that American impatience with the inadequate leadership of Yasser Arafat was understandable. But he then added: "So long as the Americans appear to accept Mr Sharon's arguments which justify brutal Israeli retaliation in defence of the illegal occupation of Arab land, the United States will handicap itself in any operation [in Iraq] which requires at least tacit Arab support."
Since then, of course, there have been signs in the aftermath of last week's terrible carnage that the US is more engaged again. The question, however, is whether that engagement will be sustained. It wasn't after the burst of activity last autumn, when Washington was seeking to build a coalition of support for action in Afghanistan, as Mr Cheney is now doing over Iraq.
While emphasising strongly the importance of restarting the Middle East process, Mr Blair said after meeting the Vice-President yesterday that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction were an "issue in its own right". But whether you say, as some in Washington do, that removing Saddam Hussein is the real precondition of peace in the Middle East or, as many Europeans do, that the exact reverse is true, or as Mr Cheney did yesterday, that there is no linkage between the two, there isn't much doubt that some earnest of a real willingness in the US to secure a negotiated settlement would make the hugely daunting process of building a coalition for action in Iraq that much easier.
Which is about where, I suspect, the centre of gravity in the British Cabinet lies. Unease among some ministers – not only Robin Cook and Clare Short – is compounded by fears that public opinion may not be as solid as it was over war in Afghanistan. Downing Street appears to regard these fears as much exaggerated. But either way they would be at least partially eased by real progress on Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.
Even to talk about the Cabinet in this way, of course, is to lend its deliberations an importance which it has seldom, if ever, had since 1997. And may not even now. But while it may still be too early to talk of "the return of cabinet government", both Thursday's meeting and Mr Blunkett's call yesterday for an "intelligent debate" suggest at the very least a modest increase in the desire of the Cabinet to be involved in big decisions.
Which should be welcome to Mr Blair. It has become a truism to say that the Prime Minister regards unequivocal public support of the US – evident again after his meeting with Mr Cheney – as being the best way of maintaining influence in private. This is not about diverting the US from a course which it has set – an impossible task. But because of the assets, human and otherwise, at Britain's disposal, it could and should be about strategy – at once military, and on the vexed question of what happens in a post-Saddam Iraq, if there is to be one.
Deeply embedded in the Labour psyche is the exemplary case – which some critics contrast with that of Mr Blair – of Clement Attlee's famous dash to Washington to stop nuclear weapons being unleashed in the Korean War. First, it is far from certain that Attlee's intervention was decisive. But even if it was, he couldn't have done it without having strongly supported the US over the Marshall Plan and against Communism in the first place.
But there will be tough and possibly unpopular decisions ahead. For that, Mr Blair will want the support of a cabinet majority. And for that, it will pay dividends to involve them – at times with dialogue as well as with information. Mr Blair is more emollient with his cabinet colleagues than the other most powerful figure in the Cabinet, Gordon Brown. But he prefers bilateral contact, sharing a good deal of Mr Brown's impatience with long and rambling meetings. And sometimes with the ideas his colleagues put forward with departmental backing. But he was right to allow a reasonably full discussion last Thursday. He will need the support of the Cabinet as his second term progresses, over Iraq, and perhaps for some of the more domestic battles ahead.Reuse content