London, July 19: As Tony Blair flew to Washington on Thursday for what should have been one of the high points of his political career, a human tragedy was unfolding in an Oxfordshire wood that could have untold consequences for his government.
The 17 standing ovations the Prime Minister received from the joint session of Congress have been overshadowed by the biggest crisis to engulf him since he came to power six years ago.
The death of David Kelly links together all the main players in the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) saga — Andrew Gilligan, the BBC journalist at the centre of the row; Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s communications chief; Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary; and members of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, which has been investigating the way the government handled intelligence material in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Any lingering hopes Blair might have had that the WMD row would fade away during the Commons summer recess — which began yesterday — were dashed yesterday with the death of Kelly.
The government is now open to the potentially explosive charge that it deliberately used a civil servant in backing Campbell in his row with the BBC as part of Blair’s efforts to counter allegations that he took the country into war on the basis of “dodgy” evidence.
Blair’s decision to hold a judicial inquiry was inevitable. The political pressure for an independent inquiry had been growing for weeks at Westminster.
It would have been unstoppable after the tragic events yesterday. But he will face demands to broaden it to cover the whole WMD issue, not just the circumstances surrounding Kelly’s death. During the sultry days at Westminster over the past month there has been the unpleasant whiff of a political witch-hunt mounted by the government.
It seemed that Campbell was prepared to go to great lengths to counter the allegation that he and Blair misled Parliament and the public over the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s WMD.
Campbell’s position could rapidly become untenable. The inquiry will have to get to the bottom of what role he may have played in throwing Kelly to the wolves. Leak inquiries are a common occurrence in government but the way Kelly was “outed” as the prime suspect for the BBC’s mole was unprecedented. Normally civil servants who leak are moved or sacked with no publicity — or prosecuted as was the case with Clive Ponting after the Falklands war.
But Kelly was deliberately used as a pawn in a very bitter and high-profile battle between Campbell and the BBC.
The moment Hoon announced on July 8 that a weapons consultant had come forward and admitted an “unauthorised meeting”, it was only a matter of time before his name became public.
Although Hoon demanded that the BBC state whether or not he was Gilligan’s source, ministers and officials made clear in off-the-record briefings they were confident that he was to blame and they did not suspect anybody else.
The judge heading the inquiry will want to know how Kelly’s name leaked out. Hoon could well take the rap and his position must be in question if the MoD is censured.
If the trail leads back to Downing Street, not just Campbell’s job will be on the line. Blair’s position could be called into question. The MPs on the foreign affairs committee will share some of the blame. They allowed themselves to be diverted from investigating the central issue of whether the intelligence information on Iraq before the war was deliberately hyped-up — or just plain wrong — into becoming participants in the Campbell-BBC battle. It was a sideshow that ended in tragedy.
As the committee split on party lines, it became clear that the Labour majority on the committee was acting politically to clear Campbell of the charge that he had “sexed up” the dossier. Gilligan compared the committee’s hearing to a “hanging jury”. If that is what they appeared like to a hardened journalist, how must an unassuming civil servant unused to media pressure have felt' Although the committee criticised the way Kelly had been treated by the ministry of defence — suggesting he was being used as a fall guy — he clearly found it a very painful experience.
The danger for Blair is that the death of Kelly has given fresh impetus to the row over WMD. The controversy was already causing huge damage to the government;s credibility.
The way Kelly was exploited by Labour has also highlighted the way the Blair administration uses spin. If he is shown to be a casualty of the government’s media operation, the ramifications will be enormous for Blair.