Michael Brown: Who wants to be an American poodle these days?

Many Tory MPs are anxious about our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan

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At first sight, the recent comments from the Tory shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, about the conflict involving Israel, Lebanon and Hizbollah seem fairly unremarkable. He sympathises with the plight of Israel over the terrorist attacks to which it has been subjected, and notes that it can hardly be expected to end its offensive at this stage "unless captured soldiers are returned, rocket attacks ended and some hope provided that Lebanon's future will be different from its past''.

Yet there has been a clear suggestion from Mr Hague during the past few days that Conservative foreign policy under David Cameron may be undergoing as great a counterintuitive transformation as has taken place in the party's domestic policies. One would normally have expected the Tories to have given the same wholehearted support to the American position as that of Tony Blair. After all, Mr Hague's personal friendship with George Bush predates that of the Prime Minister.

Back in the late 1990s, when Mr Hague was Tory leader, he met Mr Bush at the governor's mansion, when the latter was governor of Texas. It was here that Mr Hague learned about Mr Bush's "kitchen table conservatism''. The two right-wingers were seen as inseparable soul mates by the time of the November 2000 US presidential election. Mr Hague was even taking personal phone calls from Mr Bush during the hiatus between polling day and the eventual declaration by the Supreme Court that Mr Bush had triumphed over Al Gore.

Mr Hague's successor, Iain Duncan Smith, continued to enjoy a similar rapport with many members of Mr Bush's new administration, and although the Blair/Bush friendship was developing fast, there was still a ready invitation for IDS to all the Republican think-tanks and to the Pentagon. Relations froze during Michael Howard's tenure after the Tory leader made it clear that he would not automatically underwrite every dot and comma of the Blair/Bush approach to the aftermath of the Iraq conflict. For a time, the Tories were personae non gratae in Washington. All that has now changed with the return of Mr Hague to the Tory frontline.

But Mr Hague has made it clear, at least by implication, that the Tories will be no poodles when it comes to endorsing US policy on the current crisis in the Middle East. Indeed there is every suggestion that he intends, permanently, to underline his view that British foreign policy "may often be linked to that of the United States but it does not have to be identical to it''.

These may seem innocuous words but they are of huge significance - simply because it is Mr Hague uttering them. And his comments that Israel's action has been "disproportionate'' suggest a new Conservative approach to foreign affairs that may amount to a serious revision of the party's definition of the "special relationship'' with America.

During the Thatcher years the Tories were more favourably inclined towards Israel than at any previous time in their history. Mrs Thatcher would give red carpet welcomes to Israeli politicians, and MPs would regularly find sympathy from her when they accused the Foreign Office of being institutionally pro-Arab. But Israel struggles today to find the same instinctive support it received from the previous generation of Tory politicians.

There is also growing evidence that many Tory MPs are becoming extremely anxious about Britain's open-ended engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Cameron, currently on a visit to Afghanistan, will be seeing for himself the extent to which our troops are overstretched, while there is growing opposition to their mission back home. Although he publicly supports British troops, his frontbench colleagues have expressed grave concerns about their numbers and equipment. They mask an implicit criticism that we should probably not be in either country at all. And this, in turn, implies another hint that the Tories would have refused America's request to send troops to Helmand province.

It would be wrong to suggest that Tories are framing a foreign policy to suit the desires of a crude public opinion which is almost universally hostile to the Bush administration. But the accidental broadcast of Mr Blair's subservient, almost childish discussion with the President at the G8 summit last week will reinforce the British electorate's demand for a reassessment of the "special relationship". Mr Hague may have been punished by the voters for his supposed anti-European policies in the 2001 election but it could just be that his public candour towards America's foreign policy will be more appreciated by voters next time.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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