By T.R. Reid
LONDON, Sept. 20 At last, some good news for Bill Clinton: The president is expected to get a strong endorsement Monday from a respected political leader who controls more than 300 votes in the House.
The only downside is that the man who has promised to stand by the president is the political leader of a foreign country. And the votes that Tony Blair controls are not in Congress, but in the British House of Commons.
Still, when Britain's prime minister meets Clinton Monday for a political seminar in New York, he is likely to fill the role of a friend in need for a president who seems to have fewer and fewer friends in American politics with each new day of the crisis over Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.
Here in Britain, Blair has been warned that friendship with Clinton can be dangerous. Donald Anderson, a member of Blair's Labor Party who chairs Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, declared that "it would be absurd" for a British prime minister "to be the last of Mohicans, clutching the president when all his entourage are deserting him."
But Blair's office says he has no intention of deserting the president. Last week, when British newspapers were wallowing in the sexual details of the report by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, the prime minister's office said the document would have no bearing on Blair's friendship with Clinton. "He does not dump people because of some report which appears on the Internet," a spokesman huffed.
Monday's meeting will not be the first time Blair has found himself shoring up an embattled Clinton.
The prime minister just happened to visit Washington in January when the Lewinsky story first made it into the newspapers. At a joint news conference, while Clinton was fending off repeated questions about his sexual conduct, Blair offered a firm statement of friendship for and trust in the U.S. leader.
Three weeks ago on the president's first foreign trip after his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony Blair was equally supportive. Standing with Clinton in a packed auditorium in Belfast, Blair turned to his friend and declared, "There is no president of the United States who has done more for peace in Northern Ireland than you."
Politicians and pundits here say Blair's determination to stand by Clinton is motivated in part by personal feelings. "He genuinely feels that Bill Clinton is his friend," said Simon Jenkins, a political columnist for the Times of London. "Clinton understands and respects the center-left thrust of Blair's politics. It's flattering for a British prime minister to feel respected by a U.S. president."
There are also more practical concerns. For one thing, Blair has been so close to Clinton for so long that it would be difficult for him to start backing away now.
"I think Blair faces some political risk in standing by Clinton at this time," said Peter Lilley, deputy leader of the Conservative Party, Blair's chief political opposition here. "But he'd probably face more if he were seen to turn away from his friend in a difficult hour."
It is shared political philosophy that brings the two leaders together in New York. Clinton and Blair are scheduled to attend a seminar on the "third way." That's a widely-used term in Europe for the effort to find some middle ground between small-government conservatism, which prefers private sector solutions to most problems, and big-government liberalism, which generally looks to tax-funded public solutions.
In political terms, the "third way" could be used to describe the way both Clinton and Blair rose to power by pulling a traditionally liberal party toward the center. Blair has been trying to convince other liberal leaders in Europe to move in the same direction, and he constantly invokes the United States' economic strength in the 1990s as an example of how the "third way" can succeed.
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