When George met Tony - a lasting friendship sealed by 'Meet the Parents'

WHEREAS other foreign leaders are referred to curtly by their surname only, one man is known fondly as "Tony", the most trusted and dependable ally of the former president, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

George Bush's memoirs reveal the close relationship he enjoyed with former British prime minister Tony Blair, someone who "never wavered" in his support of the White House administration.

Whereas Gordon Brown is mentioned just once in Decision Points, Mr Bush writes extensively about Mr Blair, recounting their time together in locales as contrasting as Texas and a pub in Mr Blair's constituency.

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It was Mr Blair who Mr Bush called first in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The conversation, the former president recalled, "helped cement the closest friendship I would form with any foreign leader".

He said: "As the years passed and the wartime decisions grew tougher, some of our allies wavered. Tony Blair never did."

In the book, Mr Bush recounts a summit at the Azores just before the Iraq war, when Mr Blair told him that he would resign if he lost a crucial Commons vote on the conflict.

"I never imagined I would be following a British parliamentary vote so closely, let alone pulling for the Labour prime minister," Mr Bush writes.

In a newspaper interview yesterday, Mr Bush also added that Mr Blair told him that he would send British troops to Iraq even "if it costs the government".

"I admire that kind of courage," Mr Bush said. "People get caught up in all the conventional wisdom, but some day history will reward that kind of political courage."

The two men, together with their wives, first met at Mr Bush's Crawford ranch just seven months before the September 11 attacks. There, they bonded over an unlikely subject - the comedy film, Meet the Parents.

"I quickly found he was candid, friendly and engaging," Mr Bush writes. "There was no stiffness about Tony and Cherie."

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The only awkward moment in their relationship came during a visit to Chequers, when Mr Bush and Cherie Blair disagreed over the use of the death penalty. Nonetheless, Mr Bush said yesterday that to him, "popularity is nothing," and he stressed that he held scant regard for the way in which the British people viewed him.

"It doesn't matter how people perceive me in England," he said. "It just doesn't matter any more. And frankly, at times, it didn't matter then."