The George and Tony Show Could Get Wild

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It seemed like a great idea at the time. Two summers ago, Elizabeth II decided to invite Bush 43 for a formal state visit, the first for an American President since Woodrow Wilson called on her grandfather in 1918. Prime Minister Tony Blair's government was behind the idea, confident that lots of royal folderol — a white-tie dinner, a ride by the Queen and the President in a horse-drawn carriage — would put a big, emotional exclamation point on the transatlantic bonds Blair has nourished. But now, a week before Air Force One is scheduled to touch down, Bush's journey is starting to look like a cross between The Perfect Storm and Chevy Chase Goes to London.

All police vacations have been canceled so that some 4,000 officers can contain anti-Bush protests organized by the Stop the War Coalition, which mobilized a record 1 million marchers for a demonstration last February. The group's website sports an unflattering photo of Bush, complete with instructions on how to photocopy it at 141% magnification to produce the right dimensions for an effigy. Plans call for toppling a mesh statue of Bush, Saddam style, in Trafalgar Square on Nov. 20. The President will be kept as far away from protesters as the Secret Service can manage — he won't join the Queen for her carriage ride after all — but as a U.S. official says, "There's a lot of fear of surprises."

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Because Blair is so articulate and stalwart, Bush has always got a boost from the Prime Minister's visits to the U.S. But Bush's reciprocal gesture can only hurt Blair. The PM's approval ratings have slumped, largely because of his decision to stand with Bush on Iraq. There aren't any weapons of mass destruction to vindicate Blair's key argument that Saddam Hussein was furiously producing them. Constant strife and death in Iraq are making the British public uneasy about Bush's competence and fearful that Britain's nearly 10,000 troops in Iraq will be killed in increasing numbers. (Twenty-three have died since Bush declared an end to major hostilities on May 1.) In a recent MORI poll of British adults, half the respondents said they wanted Blair to resign right away.

It's no wonder he has been straining to downplay Iraq in favor of domestic issues. The strategy has been helped by the fact that the British media have lately been focusing on upheavals in the Conservative Party, a lurid child murder and, last week, the strange tale of Prince Charles' denial — without disclosing the original allegation because a court injunction prohibits that — of a racy claim about him by a former aide with a history of alcoholism. Never mind: next week all of Fleet Street will be awash with coverage of the person a U.S. diplomat ruefully dubbed "the toxic Texan," whose handling of international affairs is panned by two-thirds of Brits. White House officials know their boss is making life awkward for his First Friend. "Maybe they'll keep the lights off and pretend they're not home," quips a Bush aide.

On the contrary, Blair's solution to his p.r. problem is to offer a full-throated advocacy of close U.S.-British ties. Far from keeping Bush under wraps for fear of gaffes, Blair is encouraging him to grant interviews with lots of local media. A trip to Blair's home constituency in the northeast is planned to showcase more of the President. "Anyone who thinks the Prime Minister is going to be apologetic about his relationship with Bush and the U.S. totally misunderstands his view of them — both personal and strategic," says a Blair aide.

But it's going to be a nerve-racking three days. "It's all thin ice," says a Foreign Office official. One element of unpredictability: Bush hates — really hates — the fuss and formality in which state visits are steeped. The last time he dined with the Queen — in 1992 at his father's White House, wearing cowboy boots emblazoned with GOD SAVE THE QUEEN — he asked if she had any black sheep in her family. "Don't answer that!" his mother Barbara interjected, trying to avoid embarrassment. This time he's the President, the man in charge. Whatever Bush does, Blair will have to live with it.