John Prescott, the U.K. Deputy Prime Minister has denied saying that the Bush administration is "Crap" on the Middle East road map, or that the U.S. President is a "cowboy with his Stetson on." Mr Prescott claims that these were remarks overheard from a private conversation and that they had been taken out of context. He is quoted as saying: "This is an inaccurate report... and it is not my view." The remark is said to have been made at a private meeting in Mr Prescott's Whitehall office on Tuesday with Muslim M.P.'s and other Labour M.P.'s with constituencies representing large Muslim communities. The context is the concern that a backlash might be expected from extremist groups if U.S. driven military action is exacerbated in the regions of the Middle East, notably Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and God forbid, Iran. The fact that all these countries are actually sitting on enormous oil wealth or on "Arabian" shores used to export oil from the region, makes the whole issue of Middle East politics an extremely sensitive one, and decisions made now will prepare the stage for whatever future acts may unfold upon it.
In an effort to mitigate the potential damage caused by the "C-word" it was emphasised that Mr Prescott was referring to a "road map"; presumably an amusing metaphor of a large animal plodding along unmindful of its path, dropping great swathes of "dung" behind it as it makes its way. However, it is a fact that many Labour M.P.'s are infuriated by the now familiar "pair" of George Bush and Tony Blair standing side-by-side, endorsing military action by Israel. This is hard to square with the heartbreaking and horrific images of mutilated civilians including children who have borne the pounding of the shells fired from there. Mr Blair has given the commitment that he will make the Palestine-Israel peace process a priority when he returns from his holiday in the Caribbean. (In fairness, if anybody deserves a holiday, it is Mr Blair - I wouldn't want his job).
The uneasy ceasefire in the Lebanon has drawn Mr Blair a little time, but there is anger generally in this country over the way Britain has been allowed to be perceived as "Bush's poodle". You have probably seen newspaper cartoons to this effect. Many ministers have urged Blair to break the "special relationship", feeling that Britain will be dragged into yet more examples of terror than the London Bombings, or the apparently foiled plot by Muslim extremists to blow up several large passenger jets flying between London's Heathrow Airport and the United States earlier this week. George Bush has referred to an "axis of evil", while Mr Blair has coined the term "arc of extremism", saying that you only had to "join up the dots around the world" - geologically around the belt of oil.
Some American commentators, e.g. Irwin Stelzer, agree that there is gain to be had from the special relationship, seeing Mr Blair not so much as Bush's poodle, but as his "guide dog", pointing out that it was Mr Blair who persuaded the White House to seek out the UN for a second resolution before the (second) Iraq War. That as may be, an opinion poll suggests that 80% of Britons want the U.K. government to adopt an even more aggressive foreign policy to battle international terrorism. Admittedly this was taken after the arrest of 24 suspects in connection with the attempted "plane-bombing" last week, and only 14% think that Britain should continue to align itself with America.
Politics in the U.K. is rather like its climate systems. What weather we have depends on the balance between fronts from the Atlantic and from Europe (and occasionally from Scandinavia and from Russia), drifting aimlessly between the two. As far as politics is concerned, it is time to decide which influence is to dominate: do we go with Europe or with the U.S.? That is the pressing question Mr Blair needs to answer.