Leading Article: Mr Blair goes to Washington

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The Independent Online
Last night cocktails in Georgetown; today a photo call on the White House lawn. Tony Blair could offer his opponents a master class in political campanology. From religion to Wall Street he has been ringing the Tories' bells. Now he visits the Oval Office to summon up another vision of responsible power-in-waiting. Funds are safe with Labour; defence is safe with Labour; the Atlantic partnership is safe with Labour.

This was a trip - Mr Blair's first official visit to the United States - that had to be made. Several birds have been killed in a single visit. The connection - rather spurious, truth to tell - between the Clinton Democrats and new Labour is affirmed. More important, Tony Blair has anticipated a flight of capital amid market turmoil after a Labour victory by addressing the likes of George Soros. During the visit he gets assessed by the spooks and the joint chiefs, for Britain is still the principal nuclear partner of the United States and Tony Blair's finger may soon be near what is left of the button. It is hard to see, on all these counts, how his performance could have been better.

He has used the visit deftly to pour messages home aimed squarely at the Tory heartland of middle-Britain. While he is in the US making friends with an administration that has at best a formal relationship with Mr Major and his team, Mr Blair has the temerity to use the trip to march further into Tory territory. It marks a return to fully confident form after the uncertainty that crept into his performance after the Harriet Harman-school choice affair.

On top of fiscal moderation and party modernisation we have a pitch to the middle managers of middle Britain. This was Mr Blair's domestic audience: not well paid but with some of their income taxed at the top rate, their ranks include some teachers and police officers. Without making any specific pledges Mr Blair is attempting to identify with middle Britain's concerns and aspirations. He is undeniably effective. Labour's opponents are kept off balance and the party gains time to build a reputation for respectability and trustworthiness before it unveils any specific pledges or proposals on tax that might frighten off the middle classes.

It was significant that Mr Blair chose to do all this in the US, a further signal of Labour's acceptance of the tradition of the Atlantic alliance. It is a rite of passage that aspirant prime ministers have to go through and which Neil Kinnock, for one, failed. Yet if there was one shadow over his triumphant progress through the corridors of power on the east coast it was this: why has he not done something similar in Bonn, Brussels and Paris?

If Labour is a truly modernising party then it must modernise Britain's view of its role in the world. That can only mean one thing: to find a more settled and productive role within Europe. A trip to the US is important. It is not just theatre. But working out our relations with Europe is far more difficult and far more important in the long run. Finance ministers sit down today together in Verona for further difficult talks on a European single currency, the subject that would surely dominate the middle years of a Blair administration. Yet on this issue Labour still holds its tongue.

Britain's future is European. A future leader of Britain with progressive inclinations ought, to be sure, to make his peace with the US and its capital markets. But his heart and mind ought long since to have been absorbed by Britain's stake in the European project for union and integration. A visit to Washington is the easy part; his trips to Bonn, Paris and Brussels will be less showbusiness and much harder.

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