By Toby Harnden
The White House no longer views Britain as its most loyal ally in Europe since Gordon Brown took office and is instead increasingly turning towards France and Germany, according to Bush administration sources.
“There’s concern about Brown,” a senior White House foreign policy official told The Daily Telegraph. “But this is compensated by the fact that Paris and Berlin are much less of a headache. The need to hinge everything on London as the guarantor of European security has gone.”
With Tony Blair departed, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, is seen by many as the man George W Bush can best do business with in Europe. Although Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has not lived up to initial expectations in Washington, she is still seen as far preferable to her predecessor Gerhard SchrÃ¶der.
The White House official added that Britain would always be “the cornerstone” of US policy towards Europe but there was “a lot of unhappiness” about how British forces had performed in Basra and an acceptance that Mr Brown would pull the remaining 4,500 troops out of Iraq next year.
“Operationally, British forces have performed poorly in Basra,” said the official. “Maybe it’s best that they leave. Now we will have a clear field in southern Iraq.” Another White House official described Mr Brown as “challenging” and far less close to the US than Mr Blair.
There has been a notable reduction in contact between Downing Street and the White House since Mr Blair left and US officials have remarked on how few British ministers have visited Washington in recent months.
Mr Brown and Mr Bush are understood to have spoken twice by telephone in three months since they met at Camp David in June, whereas Mr Blair and Mr Bush held video-link conferences, often weekly.
Kurt Volker, a senior State Department official with responsibility for Europe, disagreed with the White House official’s view, arguing that the British withdrawal to the airport in Basra was a “tactical” decision and that the predicted chaos “hasn’t happened”.
He told The Daily Telegraph that Mr Brown had shown “a lot more steadiness than maybe people expected” and while his style had been very different from that of Tony Blair there had been “a lot of consistency” over policy.
But Mr Volker emphasised that “things are changing in Europe” and paid tribute to Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, both for visiting Iraq and for warning over Iran that the world had to “prepare for the worst and the worst is war”.
“Kouchner’s comments were very helpful because what he is indicating is that this is serious. It’s not just a matter of playing out diplomacy forever with no result. It’s got to provide a result.”
Privately, White House aides accept that Mr Brown would not support military action against Iran. There is also disquiet about what US officials view as double dealing by special advisers briefing an anti-White House message in London and a more favourable one in Washington. “That sort of manoeuvring is not appreciated,” said one diplomatic source.
The wariness about Mr Brown could open doors to the Conservative Party.
Owen Paterson, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, recently met several key White House officials, including Barry Jackson, who recently took over many of Karl Rove’s duties as a policy adviser to Mr Bush.
A British diplomatic source said: “In the White House there’s a sense of enormous change from Blair. They used to be on the phone to Blair all the time and that’s no longer the case because Brown clearly wants to be the unBlair.
“At the Pentagon, there’s a feeling that Britain is letting the side down on Iraq. The new best friend is Sarkozy and that means Brown taking a step back doesn’t matter as much. In White House eyes, Sarkozy is taking up the slack from Blair. “When things get tough, however, they’re likely to turn to Britain again.”