The Week in Politics: Istanbul bombings bring Blair and Bush even closer together

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The Independent Online

When Jack Straw broke the terrible news about the Istanbul bombings to a sombre Cabinet on Thursday morning, he reminded his fellow ministers that the 11 September attacks in the United States took place in 2001, not this year. Tony Blair added: "Yes, it was planned under Clinton."

Perhaps the immediate reaction of the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary anticipated the likely public and political reaction to the grim reality that Britain had been attacked successfully by al-Qa'ida for the first time. On the face of it, the attacks in Turkey validated the moral and physical crusade against terrorism by Mr Blair and President George Bush. But the comments in Cabinet by Mr Blair and Mr Straw reflected another possible explanation for some people: that Britain is a target because it is America's "closest friend in the world", as President Bush put it on Wednesday.

Yesterday Downing Street and the Foreign Office were at pains to deny that Britain is reaping the whirlwind for the Iraq conflict. Perhaps they had forgotten the intelligence services had warned Mr Blair just before the war that military action would "heighten" the threat to Britain from al-Qa'ida, as Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee revealed in September.

Whatever the motivation for the attacks in Turkey, there is no doubt they cemented the President's and Prime Minister's determination to prosecute the war on terrorism. That much was crystal clear from their body language as well as their words at their joint press conference in London on Thursday.

Even before Istanbul, the two leaders had edged closer together. In the past, President Bush's priority has been to be tough on terrorism, while Mr Blair has been keener to be tough on its causes. But on Wednesday, the President flagged up a more balanced approach, particularly on the Middle East, while Mr Blair seemed to sign up to the Bush black-and-white view of the world when he told the Commons: "It really is about time that we started to realise who our allies are, who our enemies are, and to stick with the one and fight the other."

Such words will not help to convince Mr Blair's critics that he is a restraining influence on the US President. Neither, necessarily, will the foreign policy declaration set out by the two leaders, on "effective multilateralism". The key word here, of course, is "effective": if multilateralism does not work, then America will use force anyway. Sound familiar?

Events in Turkey eclipsed the rest of the Bush visit. Mr Blair will not mind this too much, since he had little to show - in public, at least - for his special relationship. Perhaps the most tangible benefit was the President's unusually tough message to Israel, which was certainly received - badly - by Ariel Sharon's government.

But no rabbits were pulled out of the presidential hat on steel tariffs or the Britons detained at Guantanamo Bay. We will have to wait a few more weeks to know whether Mr Blair's pressure on both fronts has paid off.

On Iraq, the President hinted at a belated attempt to make the rebuilding effort international, which is certainly a welcome step in Mr Blair's direction.

But a lot of hard pounding still lies ahead. It will start on Monday when the Prime Minister will try to persuade Jacques Chirac, the French President, to get on board when they hold talks in London.

Yesterday Downing Street struggled to explain exactly what the Bush state visit had achieved. "It is a mistake to view visits like this on a sort of shopping list basis," said Mr Blair's official spokesman. "That wasn't how we set out we would view the visit beforehand, and it is not how we view it after the visit."

Perhaps the most abiding image of the visit was the toppling of the "statue" of President Bush in Trafalgar Square. Although it delighted the gleeful anti-war protesters, the reaction in Downing Street was that it would play badly with the British people alongside the television pictures of the carnage in Istanbul. Time will tell.

¿ The Bush visit compounded the Government's problems in squeezing its Bills on hospitals and crime through Parliament before the session ended on Thursday. The plan was to keep peers up well into the early hours of Thursday morning in the hope that they would gradually retire to bed. But it went wrong when Lord Grocott, Labour's chief whip, was delayed at the Buckingham Palace banquet for the President.

When he returned to Westminster, he was horrified to discover that the Lords had already drawn stumps for the night at 11.40pm in his absence. So the Government had to start all over again at 11am on Thursday.

¿ Tony Blair may have defied the normal rules of party political gravity by forming such a close relationship with a Republican President but he had better keep his eye on Michael Howard. Not only is the new Tory leader a long-standing Atlanticist, but he bonded with President Bush in their talks this week.

Karl Rove, the President's chief political strategist, held a fruitful Commons meeting with Liam Fox, the Tories' co-chairman, at which Mr Rove passed on some tips on how to beat Mr Blair at the next general election. The two men agreed to keep in regular contact. "It was very productive," said a Tory source. "He gave us some very helpful strategic advice on what we should be doing to get to where we want to be."

Strange, then, that Mr Blair seemed happy to provide President Bush with photo-opportunities for his re-election campaign. Whatever happened to Labour's special relationship with the Democrats?

¿ Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, observed the proprieties when he met George Bush on Wednesday by addressing him as "Mr President". However, President Bush was not quite sure how to address Mr Kennedy. He settled for "Mr Leader".

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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