He may stand shoulder to shoulder with Bush. But Blair needs Kerry

For the PM the past three years have felt like being chained to a lunatic. Bush is unpredictable, awkward to manage and difficult to explain
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The Independent Online

Having spoken privately to sources, including senior and occasionally well-placed sources, close to the Prime Minister, I am in a position to let you into a secret. Tony Blair wants John Kerry to win on Tuesday.

That is not what my sources tell me, though. In fact, some of them say Blair hopes George Bush will be re-elected. Having listened carefully to their explanations of how the President shares the Prime Minister's passionate belief in the need for a tough approach to the struggle against a new kind of terrorism, I have decided that they are spinning.

We should dismiss the analysis offered by various Blair-haters, who say: "Surely it will be embarrassing for him to lose his friend, ally and fellow Colgate toothpaste user?" Or: "Won't he be terribly isolated in the world?" We should ignore, too, one of the findings of The Independent on Sunday's own poll of British public opinion, which suggests that, by a margin of 50 per cent to 42 per cent, people think Blair would be "seriously weakened" if President Bush lost.

It is one of our other findings that counts. Seventy-four per cent think Blair's support for the President in Iraq has been bad for Britain. That is why Blair wants Kerry to win. It would help prolong his survival in No 10. We do not need inside information to know that President Bush is poisonously unpopular in this country. There are many reasons for thinking that Blair's ratings with the British electorate would have dropped sharply by now even if it had not been for the Iraq invasion. At one level, Iraq became a symbol around which latent hostility both to the US and to the compromises of government could coalesce. But there can be no doubt that the toll taken on Blair's reputation has been many times worse because he has been allied not just to the US but to a president regarded as an extreme and dangerous right-wing ideologue.

For Blair, the past three years have felt like being chained to a lunatic. The Bush administration is unpredictable, awkward to manage, and difficult to explain. Its removal would liberate the Prime Minister. It would not end the campaign against Blair's decision to join the US invasion of Iraq, but it would drain some of the poison and it would make it easier for him to turn attention, in partnership with President Kerry, to the task of rebuilding Iraq.

Having run for the White House on his claim to widen the coalition in Iraq, Kerry would need Blair as much as Blair would need him. Even with Bush gone, Jacques Chirac is not going to rush to send troops to Camp Dogwood, so the Kerry coalition will begin, as the Bush coalition did, with the UK.

All this can be deduced from the public record. One of my sources, however, does help to shed additional light on the question. His name is Tony Blair and speaking in the privacy of Downing Street last week, with only a hundred or so journalists present, he let slip a secret. Asked about John Kerry, he said: "It is not correct actually that I haven't met him, but I think it is best that I stay out of that, particularly at the moment."

The temporary embarrassment of Kerry's anti-war rhetoric is something Blair can live with. No one can doubt that, within moments of Bush conceding, Blair would be congratulating his new best friend and recalling fondly that mysterious meeting. (Perhaps it was when he said, "Excuse me", as Kerry bumped into him in the Capitol cafeteria while Blair was lobbying senators about Northern Ireland.) Within moments of a Kerry victory, Blair will be subtly suggesting that the blunders of Bush's Iraq policy can be put behind us. With Bush gone, it would be so much easier for him to focus on the question, "What do we do now in Iraq?" If Bush is re-elected, the misery of "Why did you get us into Iraq in the first place?" simply goes on and on.

The reason why all this matters is that I sense Blair's position is more precarious than most people assume. There is no question, I think, about his determination to see through the next election in this country, and to serve a decent stint, at least two years, after that.

But the portents of political mortality are gathering round him, if you tune in below the surface of events. Two different but highly significant moments have passed by recently without comment. One was Gordon Brown's standing ovation. No, not the one he received at the end of his party conference speech last month or the one he received from the mildly dissident Compass group last weekend, but the one he didn't receive during the Prime Minister's conference speech in Brighton. Blair paid careful tribute to "Gordon and John - the one a personal friend for 20 years and the best Chancellor this country has ever had..." He was interrupted by long and warm applause, and I thought that if delegates got to their feet Blair's premiership would have crept perceptibly closer to its end. But they didn't. They clapped and clapped, but they stayed in their seats.

The other significant moment occurred in the Commons last week, when Gordon Prentice, a disaffected Labour backbencher, asked the Prime Minister a peculiar question. "Can he think of a single dramatic act of renewal that would make the British public sit up and take notice?" Despite my degree in poststructuralism, I did not "get" the subtext until sources close to Prentice later told me that what he meant was: "Resign!" It was coded but it says something about the atmosphere among Labour MPs that one of them can publicly invite his own leader and prime minister, to his face, to stand down.

Then, beyond the chamber of the House of Commons, there is the pervasive sense that journalists as a class have simply had enough of Blair. The interaction of politicians and the media reminds me of working in a chicken house. If a bird is scratched and shows only a tiny spot of blood, the others start to peck at it. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes for a chicken to be disembowelled by its overcrowded fellows. That is why broiler chickens have to have the tips of their beaks cut off regularly.

The end for Blair could come, then, surprisingly quickly, as it did for Margaret Thatcher, albeit in different circumstances. The imminence of the general election is an important restraint on his party, and Blair's buoyancy in the opinion polls holds back journalists who do not understand it and therefore resent him even more.

Our poll today suggests Labour under Blair is heading for a third majority of over 100. So he still seems secure until the election, but after that, the chickens' beaks grow back. With John Kerry in the White House, Blair can evade his eventual fate for a lot longer than he could if George Bush scrapes back in. Like most of the rest of us, then, Blair is willing Kerry to win.