by RAY FLEMING
JUST how important is Tony Blair's meeting with George W Bush in Washington today? With their joint policy on Iraq apparently coming apart at the seams it might seem that their get-together is well-timed. There's a lot to talk about. Mr Blair has been in New York to discuss with Kofi Annan how the UN can come more into the picture in Iraq and Mr Bush has had some interesting visitors from the Middle East during the week. But, actually, is this meeting as important as it might seem to be? I ask this question for two reasons: first, because it became known yesterday that Mr Blair does not plan to make a statement to the House of Commons on his visit to Washington when MPs return to Westminster next week - a decision that Michael Howard described as “quite unacceptable” and Charles Kennedy said was “inexplicable”; second, because, unusually, there will be no press party on the Prime Minister's return flight to London so the usual relaxed briefing when he goes to the back to talk with the hacks won't take place.

ALL the signs are that Downing Street wants to play down any suggestion that there are big issues and potential disagreements at stake today. The line is that London and Washington see eye-to-eye on strategy and tactics, both political and military, and that the meeting is little more than an opportunity to review progress and confirm future plans. In a BBC radio interview yesterday morning Sir Christopher Meyer, who was UK Ambassador in Washington until the end of last year, said: “One of the key messages the President and Prime Minister will wish to give at the end of this visit is that they stand absolutely shoulder to shoulder.”

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