Blair meets Condi amid cabinet criticism

Tony Blair will today meet with Condoleezza Rice in London, just hours after a cabinet minister criticised the US government as the most-right wing in living memory.

Ms Rice, the American secretary of state, will brief the prime minister on her recent tour of the Middle East, and the issues of Iraq, the political situation in Lebanon, and the Israel-Palestine conflict will be top of the agenda.

However, the meeting has been overshadowed by comments from Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, who told the New Statesman magazine it had been hard for Labour to maintain a relationship with such a conservative US government.

He said the neo-conservative policies of president George Bush and his advisors, which advocate an aggressive foreign line aimed at exporting democracy abroad, had failed.

“It’s not only failed to provide a coherent international policy, it’s failed wherever it’s been tried, and it’s failed with the American electorate, who kicked it into touch last November,” Mr Hain said.

“The problem for us as a government.was actually to maintain a working relationship with what was the most right-wing American administration, if not ever, then in living memory.”

The minister’s comments are clearly aimed at his fellow Labour MPs with an eye on the deputy Labour leadership contest, which will begin when Tony Blair resigns some time in the next nine months.

But they will be embarrassing for the prime minister, who has staked considerable political capital on standing “shoulder-to-shoulder” with President Bush, particularly over the invasion of Iraq.

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague commented: “On the day when Condoleezza Rice is visiting Downing Street this is yet another sign of a government that is divided and paralysed.”

British ministers have attempted to distance themselves from the president’s recent announcement that 20,000 more US troops would be deployed to Iraq, and Mr Hain acknowledged that the invasion in March 2003 had become Labour’s defining policy.

“All that we’ve achieved on the international agenda, whether it’s trebling aid to Africa, or leading the fight for trade justice, or lifting billions in debt off the poorest countries, or whether it’s a new arms export policy which imposes tough controls – all of Robin Cook’s policy agenda, including the focus on human rights that he brought in – all of these things people have forgotten about because of the Iraq conflict,” he said.

However, Mr Blair continues to stress the importance of the special relationship, telling MPs last week: “The alliance of Britain with the United States of America, in my view, is in the British national interest. I think it is an important part of our foreign policy.

“I think there are two great relationships that Britain has in the world – one with America, the other with Europe – and we should maintain both and keep them strong.”