Analysis: PM keeps his fingers crossed that Iran isn't next on Bush's agenda

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The Independent Online

One of the most closely fought contests in recent years has been between those who believed Tony Blair wanted George Bush to win the US election and those convinced the Prime Minister had been keeping his fingers crossed for John Kerry.

One of the most closely fought contests in recent years has been between those who believed Tony Blair wanted George Bush to win the US election and those convinced the Prime Minister had been keeping his fingers crossed for John Kerry.

Not surprisingly, this highly charged contest was unresolved. Both sides underestimated the determined pragmatism of Mr Blair's foreign policy. When it comes to the United States, Mr Blair has no overwhelming personal or political preferences. He stands ready to work with whoever is in charge in Washington.

Mr Blair's position was outlined by his former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, on the BBC earlier this week. On the day of the election Mr Campbell argued Mr Blair would maintain his close relationship with President Bush, or start a new close partnership with Mr Kerry.

Mr Campbell was leaping to the defence of his old boss, but in doing so raised serious questions about Mr Blair's approach to foreign policy. In effect, Mr Campbell confirmed that Mr Blair believed in the special relationship between the US and Britain as a non-negotiable matter of principle, a deeply conservative view of foreign policy. The question of who was President was a relatively minor matter.

This takes us to the crux of the matter. Why is it in Britain's national interest to form such an indiscriminately close relationship? Four years ago, to the surprise of some ministerial colleagues, Mr Blair resolved to form a close relationship with the newly elected right-wing Republican, partly to block off any political space for the Conservative Party.

If Mr Kerry had won yesterday, Mr Blair would have moved with equal speed to form a close alliance. With President Bush serving a second term, Mr Blair will continue where he was before. Mr Campbell argued Mr Blair acts in this way because he believes it to be in Britain's national interest to have such a close relationship with the world's only superpower. Of course there is something in this, but equally, the junior partner must set limits to its willingness to co-operate.

Mr Blair's light ideological baggage assists him in setting extremely generous limits. In Philip Stephen's biography of Mr Blair, published in Britain earlier this year, there is an illuminating Prime Ministerial interview. Mr Blair is asked about the political divide between a Labour Prime Minister and a Republican President: "Look, we come from a different perspective altogether in terms of our politics. Though, if people really want me to be honest, I think the truth is that these value systems aren't so totally divorced in this century as they were in the last century."

It is easier to believe in a thriving international relationship with a right-wing President when, in the Prime Ministerial mind, there is a shared "value system", at least on international affairs.

Now his restless and troubled party will seek more tangible benefits from Mr Blair's foreign policy. He failed to secure the support of the UN or the European Union for the war against Iraq, admitting implicitly his errors at Labour's conference: "There was not a third way on Iraq. Believe me I tried to find one."

Mr Blair influenced President Bush in his decision to go to the UN. He did so in the context of assuring the President that Britain would support him if the UN failed to deliver. This is the type of influence no President would resist.

As a matter of urgency Mr Blair needs President Bush to deliver his private pre-election pledge to hold a Middle East peace conference. As senior Blairites are putting it, we must be tough on the causes of terrorism as well as being tough on terrorists. Next, Mr Blair needs the elections in Iraq to go relatively smoothly in January.

If they do so, it is possible Iraq will become more stable and he would be able to argue with more credibility that the nightmare of the past two years had been worthwhile. If the US is reckless in tackling the terrorists in Fallujah over the next few weeks, the chances of full elections taking place will be even less than they are at present.

It is likely President Bush's "value systems" will become even clearer in the second term. He has achieved a victory on the back of a war and his management of homeland security. There has been no electoral punishment for his isolationist approach.

Instead, it was Mr Kerry who failed to make headway with his pledge to work more closely with US allies in Europe and elsewhere. President Bush will be in no rush to pick up the phone to President Chirac or Chancellor Schröder.

Senior ministers in Britain suggest that a military attack on Iran will not be part of the new administration's agenda. Mr Blair said as much publicly at his Downing Street press conference last week. He must be keeping his fingers crossed.

If a newly self-confident President Bush were to contemplate an attack on another rogue state, Mr Blair would be placed in an impossible position. I do not believe he would command the support of his Cabinet or his parliamentary party for such a venture. Yet, Mr Blair seeks to be always the main ally of the US, the Labour Prime Minister able to work closely with a Republican President.

Some newspapers and parts of the BBC will attempt to make the next general election a verdict on the trustworthiness of Mr Blair. The more important questions relate to his judgement. As far as his foreign policy is concerned, he is once more in the hands of President Bush and a divided Republican administration.

In my view, he would have had a more constructive and smoother partnership with Mr Kerry. In the end, the "value systems" of Presidents matter more than Mr Blair seems to realise, or is at least ready to acknowledge.