LONDON - When news of the handover of authority in Iraq to the new interim government reached him Monday at the NATO summit in Istanbul, President Bush reacted instinctively. He reached out and shook the hand of the man in the next chair, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The handshake, replayed frequently on the BBC, symbolized what many Britons, including supporters and opponents of Blair's government, consider the strangest and most politically provocative personal alliance in the world the partnership that has been struck between the Republican president and the Laborite prime minister.
No one doubts the depth of their friendship not even those among Blair's fellow partisans who despise the solid front they have formed on the war in Iraq.
So closely are Bush and Blair aligned that Bush's fate in the Nov. 2 American election could have an impact on what happens to Blair next May 5, the date most pundits are guessing will see the next British general election.
There is no way to sugarcoat one fact of political life: Except for those very close to Blair, who feel constrained to defend his choice of friends, George W. Bush is scorned here. His poll ratings are low, and much of the public seems to accept the caricature of him as an impulsive gunslinger. At a luncheon of nine or 10 conservative writers, politicians and strategists at the Center for Policy Studies, a think tank that became influential in Margaret Thatcher's day, the descriptions of Bush began with "recklessly incompetent" and went downhill from there.
A close student of Blair's government says, "No one in the Cabinet wants Bush re-elected, except perhaps for Blair himself." The prime minister's closest associates are careful what they say, but one of them concedes that if Bush were gone, it would be much easier to recruit grass-roots volunteers to campaign for Labor candidates next May.
But among Blair's political strategists, it's also recognized that if Bush loses, it likely will be because Iraq has proved to be a foreign policy disaster and that same force could threaten Blair. In the spring, when the fighting in Iraq was growing and the prison abuse story threatened to implicate British troops, rumors circulated in Westminster that Blair might be forced by his own backbenchers to resign.
That is no longer the case. He has weathered the crisis and his party seems ready to fight a third election under his leadership even if the assumption is that he would likely step down some time in the following four years, perhaps after the promised referendum on joining the European Union.