- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair’s close alliance with President Bush on Iraq has driven a wedge between the Bush administration and what would seem a natural ally — Britain’s opposition Conservative Party, headed by Michael Howard.

The Tory leader, whose criticism of the Iraq war has grown increasingly strident in recent months, has been advised not to bother seeking a meeting with Mr. Bush, according to press reports, and has responded by telling an interviewer he will not take orders from Washington.

The rift has to come as a shock for a party that long basked in the warm relationship between Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and another Republican president, Ronald Reagan.

From the beginning, Mr. Blair’s willingness to defy opposition within his left-leaning Labor Party and support Mr. Bush’s war plans in Iraq has put the British Conservatives on the defensive.

The Tories initially supported the war, but became lukewarm as the conflict dragged on, and two months ago, Mr. Howard stepped up his criticism of Mr. Blair’s handling of prewar intelligence.

At the White House, Karl Rove, the president’s chief political adviser, blew up. According to British press reports, he told Mr. Howard’s aides: “You can forget about [Mr. Howard] meeting the president. Don’t bother coming” to Washington.

Far from being chastised, Mr. Howard has since fueled the fire.

When Mr. Bush was elected this month to a second term, Mr. Howard pointedly declined to voice any pleasure, saying only that “I made it clear that I could work perfectly well with both President Bush and President [John] Kerry. I don’t think it’s appropriate to express a view on those elections.”

In a major interview with the London Sunday Telegraph, the Conservative leader went further: “I am not going to be told by anyone how to do my job,” he said, “and if that displeases those in the White House, that’s tough. …

“As to whether, as prime minister, that would be a problem for me, well, if Mr. Blair is not there any more, then the White House won’t need to be protective of him.”

Some political experts suggest there is a method in Mr. Howard’s behavior as he looks ahead to a British election next year.

According to one increasingly popular theory, the Conservative leader hopes to capitalize on the voting public’s antipathy toward President Bush and its suspicions of Mr. Blair’s continuing close relationship with the White House.

In a survey last week for the Independent newspaper, 64 percent of those interviewed said good relations with Britain’s European Union partners were more important than those with the United States, while only 25 percent said the relationship with Washington should take priority.

“The poll’s results will be seen as evidence of hostility to President George Bush and opposition to Mr. Blair’s decision to back him over Iraq, rather than pursue a ‘European solution,’” the Independent said.

If it seems like a tricky strategy, it may be that Mr. Howard sees little to lose. Seven years after his Labor Party won power, Mr. Blair has shifted far enough to the right to hold the political middle ground with leads of up to nine points over his Conservative opponent in most polls.

Mr. Howard, meanwhile, appears undaunted by the cold shoulder from Mr. Blair’s friend in the White House. In a television interview on Britain’s ITV network, Mr. Howard said it was “completely immaterial” whether or not he met Mr. Bush while the Conservatives were in opposition.

“I would see him very soon after I was elected,” Mr. Howard said.

“The truth is that our country and the United States share many common interests, many common values. It is in our interests to work very closely with the United States. It is in the interests of the United States to work very closely with us.”

Mr. Howard said he has “absolutely no doubt that I would be able to work closely with President Bush after the election” in Britain.

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