Timothy Garton Ash, an international relations expert at Oxford University, drew rueful chuckles the other day at a panel discussion here when he dubbed Prime Minister Tony Blair's approach to the Bush administration "the inimitable Jeeves school of foreign policy."
Britain, Ash said, "is the wise old butler who stands behind this idiot nincompoop in the White House and is impeccably loyal in public but in private whispers in his ear: 'Is that wise, sir? Do you really want to invade Iraq?' "
The shadow of Iraq hung like an ominous cloud over the annual conference of Blair's ruling Labor Party this past week. But the bigger cloud for many here was the growing realization that President Bush could be headed for reelection in November, transforming what they had hoped would be a one-term aberration into a two-term presidency.
In the backroom meetings and panel discussions that accompany this annual ritual, many politicians, academics and analysts expressed dread about the likelihood of a Bush victory. "I'm worried the transatlantic alliance won't survive," said Pauline Neville-Jones, a former chairman of the government's top secret Joint Intelligence Committee. She added, "There is a wide perception this is an America we don't particularly like."
In the immediate aftermath of a Bush victory, these British observers warned, the United States would be likely to launch a new military offensive against insurgents in Fallujah and other Iraqi cities. They said their longer-term fear was that a second-term Bush administration might initiate a bombing campaign against potential nuclear facilities in Iran, or support Israel's doing so. And they wondered whether Blair would again feel compelled to follow in the administration's wake, as he did in committing British troops to Iraq.
"People in Europe can't bury their heads, clutch the table and wait for this nightmare to be over," said Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper.
Freedland confessed he was mildly embarrassed to have once written a book titled "Bring Home the Revolution: How Britain Can Live the American Dream," which praised America's dynamic, upwardly mobile society. "It's awfully hard to be an Americano-phile in 2004," he told the audience. "This is a loathed administration."
Blair has been Bush's staunchest foreign ally, sending British forces to campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Britain still maintains about 9,000 troops. In his speech to the conference, he acknowledged that many members of his party, which defines itself as socially progressive, have come to believe he has been "just pandering to George Bush" and a conservative Republican administration they find ideologically repugnant. He promised them he would tackle issues such as global warming and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"But understand this reality," he added. "Little of it will happen except in alliance with the United States of America." That line was greeted with virtual silence.
Critics cited the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a clear example of the one-sidedness of Blair's partnership with Bush. The prime minister's aides say Blair has continually pressed Bush to intensify diplomacy to bring about reconciliation between the two sides, insisting that the issue remains just as important as Iraq. Blair promised the annual party conference two years ago that Israel and the Palestinians would begin final-status talks on a permanent peace settlement within six months. It never happened -- in large part, critics contend, because Bush failed to make the peace process a priority.
"On the Middle East peace process, Tony Blair has been naive all the way through," said John Kampfner, political editor of the New Statesman, a pro-Labor magazine, and author of "Blair's Wars," an account of the prime minister's foreign policy. "He hoped he got through to George Bush, and that George Bush would get through to Ariel Sharon," the Israeli prime minister. But the Bush administration instead had pursued its own perceived self-interests, Kampfner told one panel, which included allowing Sharon relatively free rein.
Blair's political allies conceded that many things had not gone according to plan. But, they argued, Britain has no choice but to stay close to any American administration.
"Too many people in this country want to make America the new enemy," Dennis MacShane, minister for Europe, told the same panel. Europe, he said, would be better off concentrating on improving its institutions and diplomacy and becoming a more equal partner to the United States, both economically and militarily.
There was widespread agreement among participants at the party conference that the Jeeves approach would no longer suffice and that Blair needed to dissent in public. Emma Burnell of the Fabian Society, a venerable Labor Party research group, said Britons were longing for a "Love Actually" moment -- referring to the scene in last year's romantic comedy in which a British prime minister, played by Hugh Grant, dresses down an arrogant American president (Billy Bob Thornton) at a news conference.
"The United Kingdom has to stop the tactic of arguing with the Americans in private and agreeing in public -- that's out," said Neville-Jones. "We've actually got to come out and show our colors."