Howard may be an opportunist, but there is an opportunity to exploit

The result of this intervention is that the Government stands even closer to Bush than at the start of the week
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The Independent Online

Michael Howard is, of course, behaving as an opportunist. That is to be expected. What is unexpected is that so many ministers purport to be surprised by it. Our adversarial system requires leaders of the Opposition to grab any passing chance for a spot of opportunism.

One reason why Iain Duncan Smith was so brutally defenestrated was that he had proved hopeless at opportunism. Through the build up to the invasion of Iraq he never acted as the Leader of the Opposition but as the loudest cheerleader for war. I have often suspected that one reason why Tony Blair never asked searching questions of the duff intelligence that was served up to him on weapons of mass destruction was that he knew he would never face a single challenging question on the issue from the other despatch box.

At least Gaitskell led the Labour Opposition at the time of Suez in voting against invasion. The legacy of Duncan Smith has been to leave the Conservative Party saddled with having given unconditional support to the biggest mistake of British foreign and security policy since Suez. Howard may not be able to airbrush out of the record Tory support for invading Iraq in the first place, but he is determined to make as much capital as he can out of the monumental blunders of the subsequent occupation.

Instead of denouncing Howard for his understandable opportunism, my former colleagues could use their time more profitably by reflecting on why he sees an opportunity in keeping the Atlantic between himself and Washington. Of course they know the answer because their private polling will be giving them the same message as his. George Bush is fortunate in that he is standing for President in America as he has plumbed previously unfathomed depths of unpopularity here.

When Bush was first elected I had a number of conversations with Tony Blair about our strategy towards the new administration. To my surprise Tony was even more determined to make a success of the relationship than he had been with Clinton. His anxiety was that the Conservative pitch would be that Britain needed a Tory Government to do business with a Republican President. In the event, that President has proved such a liability with the British electorate that Labour would have been in better standing if we had let the Conservatives claim him for their own. Vote Tory for a Mate of Bush is a more successful slogan for Labour in next month's Euro-elections than anything our campaign has yet produced.

Instead our Leadership must be delighting Howard by allowing him to set the agenda. He has called us to be transparent about where we differ from President Bush, and the airwaves are therefore heavy with new Labour voices asserting that we must not allow room for a playing card to be slipped between Bush and Britain. The net, and no doubt intended, result of Howard's intervention is that the Government appears to stand even more closely to President Bush's shoulder than it did at the start of the week

During its long march through the wilderness of the opposition years the Labour party underwent a strategic transformation from a party that was deeply suspicious of Europe into the champion of Britain's destiny in Europe. Extraordinarily, Blair has chosen the Bush years to reposition the Labour Party as the advocate of uncritical Atlanticism. This is potentially a kamikaze electoral strategy given the mood about the current US President. It is also doubtful whether it represents a wise diplomatic strategy.

There are times in international affairs when it can make sense to keep to yourself any criticism of a partner. But only where there is a trade-off for surrendering your freedom of expression. In return for public support it is reasonable to expect private influence. The problem for Blair is that he is unable to demonstrate any meaningful influence over the conduct of the Bush administration that could possibly compensate for the daily humiliation of being decried as its doormat. The reduction of Gaza to a widening demolition site is a daily reminder of his inability to get Bush to deliver on his promise that after Iraq he would focus on peace to the Middle East.

Blair's tragedy is that he has staked his international strategy on influencing an administration that has made a principle out of unilateralism. Possibly he can be forgiven for not grasping sooner that central characteristic of the Bush administration because he dealt with its President, while the motor power of this administration is provided by Vice-President Cheney and the constellation of fundamentalist Neo-Cons that revolve around him. To be fair they have always been commendably transparent about their commitment to go it alone. Their published statements are explicit that not only should America brook no enemy, but that it should not be dependent on any ally either. It was always going to be tough for Blair to make a successful career out of being an ally to an Administration who regarded any need for allies as a sign of weakness.

Part of the problem is the deep confusion in Downing Street between being a friend of the American people and being a friend of Bush. It surfaces at a semantic level in statements of the Prime Minister who repeatedly uses Americans in the plural and President Bush in the singular as interchangeable terms. They are not. George Bush's foreign policy (or more accurately Dick Cheney's unilateralist ideology) is an aberration in a long American tradition of building networks of international support. Most Americans did not vote for him last time round and may not do so next time either. Yet, when Tony Blair found himself in New York on the same day as John Kerry he failed to insist on a meeting.

But the most compelling reason to put some space between us and President Bush is the widening gulf he is putting between himself and much of the rest of the world. To his credit Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British envoy to Iraq, yesterday expressed his disgust at the depraved pictures from Abu Ghraib. Yet the disgust of an urbane Englishman is nothing compared to the visceral anger provoked by the same pictures across Muslim countries, and beyond them throughout the Third World. Britain is a target of that anger because we have inextricably identified ourselves with American military power both in the invasion of Iraq and in its subsequent violent occupation. When our Prime Minister resolutely refuses to criticise President Bush in public, he fails to correct the perception that abuses by America are abuses by Britain too.

Ultimately the US will survive the isolationism that comes with unilateralism. The US is the hyperpower of the modern stage and the rest of the world will do business with it because they must. But Britain is a medium-ranking power which needs allies in governments and goodwill among their populations. We will not secure our international interests by a strategy of sticking close to President Bush if that means staying silent on the offence he is causing around the world.