The cold shoulder from President Bush could do Michael Howard a world of good

Even Blair is getting the message that his own 'shoulder to shoulder' moments with Bush do him nothing but harm
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The Independent Online

Eat your heart out, Michael Howard. As I write this, I am looking lovingly at the signed colour photograph, on my desk, of myself shaking hands with the late President Ronald Reagan, taken in the White House in 1985, a few weeks after his second inauguration.

Eat your heart out, Michael Howard. As I write this, I am looking lovingly at the signed colour photograph, on my desk, of myself shaking hands with the late President Ronald Reagan, taken in the White House in 1985, a few weeks after his second inauguration.

That was during the high tide of the Reagan/Thatcher relationship, when any Tory backbench nonentity merely had to mention to anyone in the Republican Party that they were shortly to visit Washington and every door - including that of the Oval Office - would open. Not only did I get the photo, but I also got - admittedly in the company of 12 other MPs from right-wing European parties - lunch with the President in the Roosevelt Room as well.

But it comes to something, nearly 20 years later, when one of the most right-wing Presidents of the United States tells the Leader of the British Conservative Party that he is never welcome at the White House.

Actually, it is not quite as bad as that. But it does appear that the minders for George W Bush, led by his chief of staff, Karl Rove, are not best pleased with Mr Howard and, as gatekeepers to the President, have decided that they will bar his way to the Oval Office should he seek the traditional pre-election photocall usually given to putative prime ministers-in-waiting. Even Labour's Neil Kinnock and his foreign affairs spokesman, Denis Healey, were received by the right-wing Mr Reagan. This was the infamous occasion when the President mistook Lord Healey for our former ambassador. "Nice to see you again, Mr Ambassador."

I doubt, however, judging from the response of Mr Howard to Mr Rove, that he is losing much sleep over this apparent insult. First, Mr Howard is not the type of person to lose sleep over anything. Second, his robust statement suggests that he is aware of the attitude of the overwhelming majority of British people to the extraordinary relationship between Tony Blair and Mr Bush.

The reaction of a number of Tories (many of whom, like Alan Duncan and Michael Portillo, are supporting John Kerry) is that it is about time someone senior in British politics told the White House that while they may think they can interfere in the internal affairs of Middle East countries, they certainly have no business interfering in British domestic politics.

Others, who see the continuing parlous state of the Tory party, will be concerned that in the eyes of Washington, Tony Blair will - and should - remain in Downing Street for the duration of a second Bush term if the Republicans are re-elected in November. But the administration's desire to boost Tony Blair will cause more embarrassment in the UK for the Prime Minister than for Mr Howard.

In any event, nothing is more likely to frighten the British electorate in the run-up to the general election next year than the sight of a photo opportunity between Mr Bush and the Tory leader. Even Mr Blair is probably getting the message. He has already put off, indefinitely, the Congressional ceremony to award him a bauble following the fall-out from the aftermath of the Iraq war.

Mr Howard is apparently paying a price for appearing to change his mind on the war with his "if I knew then what I know now" newspaper interview. Mr Rove thinks that he must be "punished" for calling on Mr Blair to resign. Actually Mr Howard merely said that the Prime Minister should consider his position. But the moment a foreign power, the US government, appears to be intervening directly in the internal political affairs of our own country, the opportunity is easily presented, domestically, for Mr Howard to make a virtue out of the possible embarrassment. In any event, Mr Bush has not yet secured his second term.

This petty spat nevertheless underlines the extent to which Tony Blair, having colonised support from many middle-class former Tories at home, has been happy to be lumped together with the right-wing leaders around the rest of Europe and the world. It was with Mr Blair, not with Mr Howard, that the right-wing Silvio Berlosconi played football at his sumptuous palace in Sardinia.

And although relations are excellent between the Tory leader and his namesake, John Howard, in Australia, Downing Street will probably be hoping, as much as the Tories, for a Howard win in the forthcoming October general election down under. Similarly, it was Mr Blair, rather than Mr Howard, who was probably more embarrassed and anxious at the defeat of José Maria Aznar, the right-wing former prime minister of Spain, earlier this year.

But although the relationship, in modern times, between the Republicans in the US and the Tories has previously been generally close, it is important that Mr Howard understands that plenty of his Tory predecessors, admittedly in office at the time, also managed to have good relations with the Democratic Party. John F Kennedy's relationship with Harold Macmillan and Franklin Roosevelt's and Harry Truman's relationships with Winston Churchill were based on friendship as much as the special relationship. John Major, however, certainly suffered as a consequence of sending backroom Tories to dig dirt on Bill Clinton's student days at Oxford for George H Bush's doomed 1992 campaign.

In many respects Mr Howard has unwittingly ended up with the best of all worlds. His party co-chairman, Liam Fox, is leading a delegation of Tories as observers to this week's Republican Convention - although whether any senior Republicans will notice them is a moot point. At the convention four years ago, William Hague made the most of Republican ideas by creating a Tory copy of George W Bush's "compassionate conservatism" campaign. Much good it did him.

No doubt Dr Fox will learn a few new grubby tricks of the campaigning trade. New practices of convention theatre invariably become the models for smart-suited backroom Tory boys to inflict on party leaders' conference speeches over here. Ronald Reagan bequeathed the speakers' autocue to an enthusiastic Margaret Thatcher, while George W, four years ago, taught Mr Hague the daft art of getting the TV cameras to follow him down the labyrinthine concrete corridors leading into the convention hall. Delegates would be worked up into a frenzy as their hero was shown on the big screen, waving furiously at the cameras before entering the hall. This time, Mr Bush is expected to address the convention from a circular stage in the middle of the hall. Expect a repeat of this technique at the Tory conference in Bournemouth in October.

In the end, however, there is a growing resistance by British voters to American - especially Republican - campaigning practices. Mr Howard should therefore simply await the judgement of the US voters. Who knows, perhaps there may yet even be a Kerry/Howard photo. But in the meantime, the Tory leader can always borrow my Reagan picture.