Matthew Norman: Together they rode off into the sunset...

What purpose there can have been to the meeting and news conference is beyond imagining
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If the one was a soupcon less blithe and swaggering, and the other a smidgeon less slippery and self-righteous, you could almost have felt a twinge of pity for the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of global statesmanship as they met in Washington yesterday. Almost.

Once, they bestrode the world like a colossus and his glove puppet, albeit Mr Blair's memorable parting instruction, via his chief of staff Jonathan Powell, to Christopher Meyer as he headed off to the Washington embassy - "We want you to get up the White House's arse, and stay there" - suggested some fundamental confusion about the mechanics of ventriloquism.

Today the duo are known even to that anti-punning paragon of journalistic sobriety The Economist as "the Axis of Feeble", and one can only guess at the wretchedly muted quality to yesterday's Oval Office welcome. Perhaps even at this late stage they dredged up some gallows humour, with a heavily knowing "Yo" from Mr Bush and a wearisomely ironic "yo" in response from Mr Blair. But if so, even an endlessly stubborn President and a supremely self-deluding Prime Minister must finally have come to accept that theirs is a yo-yo relationship on a one-way descent towards political damnation, without a hope in hell of ever bouncing back up.

The real hell, of course, belongs to the people of Iraq, whose future James Baker and his cross-party committee touched on so lightly in their cogent and persuasive, if necessarily unoriginal, Iraq Study Group Report. Its paramount ambition seemed to be to give bipartisan imprimatur for Mr Bush to remove his troops from conflict as quickly and cleanly as possible, and considering the unanimous acceptance that there are "no new ideas on Iraq", to borrow from Baker himself, the President may have little option but to comply.

Whether he will accept the two other key recommendations, to try to engage Syria and Iran in a desperate rearguard attempt to avoid all-out civil war and to use his muscle at last to knock Israeli and Palestinian heads together, is quite another matter. It is in these areas, we are told, and particularly the latter, that Mr Blair is unleashing the full weight of his "influence" on the President - a notion propounded by the usual unnamed No 10 sources that invites a despairing shrug of the shoulders. Incredibly, even now, Downing Street is intent on maintaining the fiction that the "special relationship", so derided by a senior American official only last week, persists to this day (if it ever existed).

Look up "Delusional Disorders" on Wikipedia, and you come across a sub-section of this branch of mental illness called "Grandiose Type", defined as follows: "Delusion of inflated worth, power, knowledge, identity or special relationship to a deity or famous person." That may not have been exactly what Churchill had in mind when he first coined the phrase, but it would seem to cover recent Anglo-American relations uncannily well.

Spookier and spookier, it is even cross-referenced to a form of religious mania called Jerusalem Syndrome - commonly a form of religious mania provoked by a visit to that city, but in this case shorthand for the residual belief of Mr Blair - nothing if not a grandiose type - that he can bring lasting peace to the Middle East even without the assistance of the much missed special envoy, his old mucker Squealer Levy.

With Mr Bush's curt refusal during the Yo Blair exchange to let him fly to the region as Condoleezza Rice's outrider still ringing in the ears, we now found the PM in Washington affecting to use his non-existent leverage on a man whom no one other than Mr Blair any longer pretends has ever paid attention to a word he has said, or ever will.

The best that can be said for this preposterous trip is that there is a least a certain gruesome symmetry to it. Mr Blair's entire foreign policy has been built around the desire to stand alongside the US President, at one of those sexy twin lecterns, luxuriating in that sense of being at the epicentre of global power. That, rather than some carefully nuanced expression of strategic British interests, is what "get up the White House's arse and stay there" was about ... that actorly craving permanently to be centre stage, no stage on the planet being more central than one in Washington sandwiched between the press corps at the front and an imposing imperial eagle motif behind.

Five years ago, in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, he stood beside Mr Bush as the two basked in the world's approval, earning the gratitude America expressed in that Congressional Gold Medal he cannot still find two minutes time to accept. Yesterday, he stood beside him again as the two visibly wilted beneath the world's scorn and derision.

What genuine purpose there can have been to the meeting and the news conference is beyond imagining, with Mr Bush requiring several weeks for those who understand such things to tell him what he thinks about the Baker Report. Even so, it was clear from the response of the President, who really ought to be on Ritalin, when reminded of the second part to one question - "Oh, Iran and Syria," he said, and from the tone it might as well have been "Oh, and pick up the dry cleaning," - that involving those two countries in Iraq is not in the forefront of his thinking.

Mr Bush graciously expressed his support for the sort of abundantally pointless, grandstanding Prime Ministerial jaunt to the Middle East he so peremptorily vetoed a while ago, and the pair of them rounded up all the usual suspects of exhausted, meaningless rhetoric... the strength of the relationship between our countries, standing together against an unprecedented threat to civilisation, blah, blah, the will of the Iraqi people as expressed in democratic election, and so on. But few watching can have been deceived that there was any more to this charade than allowing two condemned buddies publicly to cling together for comfort as the end draws near. Some may have wondered if it might have been more seemly had they done so in private, on their knees, praying to the God to whom their respective hot lines appear to have been disconnected a while ago.

As they walked out together to face the press, smiling with a sort of studied sombre courage, the closing scene that came to mind was the one in which Butch turns to Sundance and says, with the sort of inspired gallows humour we can only hope they reprised in the Oval Office yesterday: "For a moment there I thought we were in trouble."

In the next shot, of course, the two are gunned down by the entire Bolivian army. The volley that faced Messrs Bush and Blair was one of flashlights rather than rifle fire, but these are dead men walking and somehow the effect seemed much the same.