27 July 2004
Governments have no business involving themselves in other people's elections. This is a cardinal rule of international etiquette between democracies, laced with a large quotient of realpolitik. It is in no government's interest to learn after the count that it has backed a loser. So much is plain common sense.
The government of John Major learned the cost of breaking this rule when it solicited Bill Clinton's passport details during the 1992 campaign. A country's voters decide who will govern them; outsiders should not interfere.
Nonetheless, as the great set-piece events of the US election get under way, the lengths to which the Blair government is going to avoid all appearance of partiality verge on the ridiculous. Labour MPs attending this week's Democratic convention may attend only in a private capacity. Officials are warned on no account to express a view of the campaign.
The reasons hardly present any mystery. In allying himself and his - Labour - government so closely with George Bush and his - Republican - administration, Mr Blair has impaled himself on a dilemma that is entirely of his own making. Whichever candidate wins in November, Mr Blair stands to lose. If George Bush is re-elected, Mr Blair is saddled with the continuation of this awkward alliance, which is hugely unpopular with British voters. If John Kerry wins, Mr Blair must start afresh with a president whose philosophy and priorities may be more familiar, but whom he did not expressly support. Of course he wants his government to keep its distance.
Mr Blair's own dilemma, however, need not dictate a ban on all official contact. Political parties are, by their very nature, partisan. There is no reason why Labour MPs should be shy of attending the Democratic convention in their party capacity or expressing their support for John Kerry, if they wish to do so. The same goes for Tories and Republicans. Nor need political differences bar productive relations between governments; open and respectful disagreement is a perfectly reasonable basis for transacting political business, and leaves less room for ill-feeling if anything goes wrong. Less unconditional cosiness with Washington might have saved Mr Blair a great deal of trouble.