LONDON -- The political price that Tony Blair pays at home for his enthusiastic partnership with President Bush in Iraq is made clear to a visitor who asks a London cabbie about the impending national election. "Oh, Vice President Blair will get back in," comes the sardonic reply.
Even the British prime minister's critics take it for granted that he will win a third term in the vote he is soon expected to call for May 5. But they add with satisfaction that his support for Bush, Iraq's chaotic conditions and multiplying missteps at home will slash Blair's bulging New Labor majority in Parliament. In the media here, Blair is portrayed as an exhausted, besieged and rattled politician who is running scared.
(Stephen Hird -- AP)
If so, he hides it well. He was in good spirits and still buoyant during an interview late yesterday afternoon at 10 Downing Street. At the end of a long day of chairing an international conference on providing help to the Palestinian Authority, a shirt-sleeved Blair did not back away an inch from his unlikely partnership with the conservative Republican president. He praised "an evolution of American policy" more sympathetic toward Palestinian interests that surfaced in Bush's trip to Europe this month.
But Blair believes that the administration's "hardheaded realism" on Israel's security is being taken up more by Europeans now. The London conference, negotiated into being through months of talks between Blair and Americans, Europeans, Palestinians, Arab states and even Israel, which did not participate, was an important step in developing a common vocabulary for a new peace effort.
"We are on the same page now because of this shared description of what an independent, viable Palestinian state means," the British leader said. Americans accept the importance of the territorial integrity of a Palestinian state, while Europeans have given recognition to America's insistence that such a state "has to be democratic and stable."
The conference produced "an agreed script," Blair added. "But we still have to make the movie." He achieved a procedural advance by getting all participants to accept a series of mechanisms for monitoring future progress on two sets of commitments: the political, economic and security reforms promised by the Palestinians, and the economic and technical help promised to them by Europe and the United States.
Israel had hoped that the meeting would be a one-time expression of support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But with administration backing, Blair used it to create, in effect, a road map for getting back to the "road map" peace plan that is supposed to result in a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Blair has played a major role in moving Bush on Middle East peace efforts, I am told, but the prime minister declined what I had hoped was an artful invitation to confirm that in our conversation. In Blair's opening remarks to the conference, I nonetheless heard echoes of what he has reportedly told the president in private.
Blair described the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as "the cause most used or abused by those who try to rally support for extremism." And he suggested indirectly that all of Bush's goals in the global war on terrorism and his push for democracy in the Middle East will be affected by whether or not the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is contained. He predicted that the security of all nations would be enhanced if the international community backed and then saw implemented security reforms by and for the Palestinians.
This conference was, to be crude about it, the first substantial return for his domestic audience that Blair has harvested from his investment in Bush and the war in Iraq. Still ahead are differences with Washington over Blair's priorities of aid to Africa and on climate change. When I asked if he expected to be able to move Bush on these issues as well, the British leader maintained an optimistic air but did not minimize the problems.
"The Americans are prepared to have a dialogue that takes into account their concerns, about the economy on climate change, and about good governance" as a condition for aid to Africa, he said. "That is the kind of hardheaded realism we often see in the administration's positions."
Since Churchill, British prime ministers have supported "the special relationship" with Washington. Blair, who says he is about to start his final run for that office, has done much more than that in the polarizing time of Bush and Sept. 11. Blair has endured the special relationship, and by the looks of things, he has survived it.