George Bush's visit is a nightmare for Tony Blair - but not for the White House, which badly wanted it
by Jonathan Freedland
We all know the feeling. You glance at the diary and realise you have guests coming to stay next week, when nothing could be less convenient. They're coming from abroad, expecting to be entertained for several days and it's far too late to cancel. This is the last thing you need.
So spare a thought for Tony Blair, as he scans the calendar and sighs. There are the dates, circled and unyielding: November 18 to 21 - Bush in Britain. He knows what it will mean. His guest is the most unpopular US president in living memory. The anti-war movement will be back on the march, gearing up for its biggest outing since it brought up to 2 million Britons onto the streets in February. Blair will have to make yet more speeches like the one at Guildhall on Monday, once again defending the war on Iraq. And for a fortnight, starting now, all eyes will focus not on the domestic agenda by which his government will eventually be judged, but on the matter which has brought him greatest grief since taking office.
A Times poll yesterday found half the public regard Blair's closeness to George Bush as bad for Britain; next week will show the two of them standing shoulder-to-shoulder, in coverage that will be wall-to-wall. Blair must want to shout up the stairs to Cherie: "I never wanted him to come here in the first place. Whose bloody idea was this?"
As well he might ask. For no one seems ready to own up to this particular invitation. "It came up as a matter of routine," says a Foreign Office spokesman, "all American presidents get them in their first term." Except Bush's trip can hardly be described as routine. He will be the first US president to come here on a state visit - with all the extra lashings of ceremony and royal red carpet that that term implies. (There was big hoopla for Woodrow Wilson in 1918 but even that, the protocol experts say, did not quite count.) Working visits are common enough, but a royal welcome is not given easily: Bill Clinton had to wait till his final month in office before he had an invitation to take tea at Buckingham Palace. Bush will be staying there as a house guest.
So how did it happen? The Foreign Office suggests a call to the palace, who promptly insist this was not their doing. "This whole visit is being done with advice - with a capital A," says a palace spokeswoman firmly. The royal family did not do this on their own; government was involved. The two sides cannot even agree on when this wizard idea first surfaced. The Foreign Office says it was settled in June 2002; the palace and US embassy say the first they heard of it was early this year.
All of which makes you wonder if even the hosts are getting cold feet. You can hardly blame them. For who does this trip really benefit? Not Blair, who's getting a headache he could do without. Not the Queen, who has an allergy to political controversy and, given recent events, can hardly be eager to see her already beleaguered institution tarred by association with the "toxic Texan".
No, there is only one beneficiary of this visit and it is the Bush White House. With an election campaign looming, they are anxious to deflect the accusation that Bush is isolated. They want to show he has allies and friends around the world and few play better in the US than Tony Blair, whose American ratings put his home numbers in the shade.
That explains why Bush is keen to be seen with the PM, but not why he might want the full flummery of a state visit. A clue can be found in the text studied more closely than any other by the political operatives in the Bush White House: the campaign to re-elect Ronald Reagan in 1984. That made heavy use of TV footage which cast Reagan as a statesman, at home across the globe. A favourite sequence showed the president and the Queen on horseback in Windsor Great Park during his 1982 visit. The Bush team want some royal shots like that of their own. Apparently they were particularly keen on an open-carriage procession down the Mall, and are said to be disheartened by London's suggestion that that might not be possible due to "security".
One Republican source, close to the White House, has a theory as to why the Queen is such an important catch for the image makers. "Look, Americans don't know shit. They're not going to recognise the prime minister of the Philippines. The only foreign leaders they could pick out are the Queen of England and the Pope - and we've already got those pictures." With the Pontiff in the can, the Queen is the co-star the president needs.