Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

The moment of reckoning for Bush's folly in Iraq has finally arrived. Blair has weathered the worst of the fallout, but in the US it is only just starting

The Independent

Published: 06 November 2005

For the past week, my life has been a tale of two cities, Washington and London. But in terms of politics, they might as well be one. I left the former when George Bush was in the midst of his "worst week in power"; I left the latter when Tony Blair was in the midst of his worst week - at least since his last worst week.

Weirdly, I feel as if I never moved. Two and a half years ago, Messrs Bush and Blair led us into a reckless war, having embraced, knowingly or unknowingly, false intelligence which they then promulgated to every corner of the earth. In the space of six months, they both won solid, if narrow, election victories. But the moment of reckoning for the Iraq folly has now arrived. And in both cities, the drama is playing out in almost identical circumstances.

Consider the similarities. Both leaders have been forced to jettison key advisers. David Blunkett's presumed sins - dubious business investments and a failure to observe ministerial rules of disclosure - are, of course, rather different from those of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice-President Cheney's top aide, now charged with lying to the FBI and a grand jury during the CIA leak investigation.

Nor is it a coincidence that, almost simultaneously, both Mr Bush and Mr Blair have suffered legislative defeats on terrorism-related Bills. Again the details differ slightly. The White House was stunned when the Senate overwhelmingly passed a measure obliging the CIA and the Pentagon specifically to outlaw abusive treatment of terror suspects. After barely winning a couple of squeaker votes on his Terror Bill, the Blair government was forced to scrap its plan to detain terrorist suspects for up to 90 days.

But at Westminster and on Capitol Hill, the bigger picture is the same. Long subservient parliamentary majorities finally rose up against their masters. In Washington, Republicans (at least in the Senate) said "enough". In London, a group of Labour backbenchers (and not just the usual left-wing suspects) broke ranks.

In both cities, the governments' respective domestic agendas are in ruins. For President Bush, social security reform is a dead duck. And after the Blunkett fiasco, few would give much for the chances of Mr Blair's intended education and welfare reforms. And why this rebellion of the meek? One reason is that neither will seek re-election (Mr Bush because he is barred from doing so by the US constitution, Mr Blair because he has said he will step down before the next election, expected in 2009). But another factor is in play - the most powerful political instinct of all: self-preservation.

Not long ago Mr Bush and Mr Blair were winners. Now they are seen as losers, deeply unpopular figures from whom erstwhile supporters keep a prudent distance. But between the unfolding political crises in London and Washington, there is one all-important difference. Mr Blair can be got rid of before the appointed time, indeed at any time, by a palace revolt akin to the one that felled Margaret Thatcher. One London bookmaker has slashed the odds on him being out of office within a year from 8-1 to 11-4. But short of impeachment, Mr Bush will remain in the White House until 20 January 2009. And that, coupled with the immense power wielded by a US President, is what makes this particular Washington moment so scary.

Whatever his fate, for Mr Blair the worst of his domestic difficulties over the Iraq débâcle are behind him. Here, the equivalent is the great CIA leak investigation, and that is by no means over. For one thing, the President's closest aide, Karl Rove, could be indicted. And if the Libby case goes to trial, the dirty pre-war intelligence laundry will receive a potentially devastating airing in a public court of law.

For more than four years the Bush administration, supported by friendly majorities in the House and Senate, has managed to suspend the normal checks and balances of the American system. But no longer. On Capitol Hill, it is daily harder for Republicans to block Democratic calls for an investigation. At long last the US press, shamed by its supine acceptance of the WMD propaganda, is cranking into action.

For Mr Bush, all is not yet lost. Second terms are notoriously treacherous. But precisely because everyone knows he will remain in office until the appointed date, a US President is tacitly granted the chance of redemption.

In 1987 - albeit with a little help from Mikhail Gorbachev - Ronald Reagan did exactly that, cleaning out the White House after the Iran-Contra scandal before riding off into a golden California sunset. Does Mr Bush, so famous for his refusal to admit the slightest error, have the temperament to do the same? I somehow doubt it. Which is why you can laugh at the shenanigans in London. In Washington you must tremble.