| Tony Blair’s aide, Tom Kelly, in County Down, Northern Ireland. (Reuters)
London, Aug. 5 (Reuters): A top aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologised today for comparing the dead Iraq weapons inspector at the centre of his government’s worst political crisis to a fictional fantasist.
The suicide of Iraq weapons inspector and scientist David Kelly days after he appeared in front of a parliamentary panel, investigating whether the case for war in Iraq was exaggerated, has turned into a test of the government’s credibility.
Blair’s official spokesman, Tom Kelly, apologised for linking the scientist to Walter Mitty just hours before the funeral of the respected government weapons inspector who made dozens of trips to Iraq to search for the banned weapons, which British and US officials made their prime cause for war.
American author James Thurber created the Mitty character in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in which a hen-pecked man of modest means and talents persistently daydreams about a much more exciting and glamorous life than his own.
The admission, which comes a day after Blair’s office denied anyone had made the remark with its approval, drove the government deeper into turmoil and further undermined its credibility at a time of plummeting public trust.
Former minister and outspoken critic of the Iraq war Glenda Jackson said attempts by Blair’s Downing Street office to discredit David Kelly hours before his funeral were “obscene”. “It’s the opening salvo by Number 10 in an attempt to turn the victim into a villain,” she told Sky News.
Tom Kelly said the comment had been made in a “private conversation” with a reporter and was not designed to discredit the scientist, who is to be buried tomorrow.
“I now recognise that even that limited form of communication was a mistake, given the current climate,” Tom Kelly, who is not related to the scientist, said in a statement.
“I therefore unreservedly apologise to Dr Kelly’s widow and family for having intruded on their grief.”
David Kelly slit his wrist after being identified as the source of a BBC report alleging the government had exaggerated evidence of Iraq’s banned weapons to justify an unpopular war.
The Blair government’s reputation for “spin”, and the failure to find the banned Iraqi weapons, have caused the prime minister’s trust ratings to collapse. The handling of the David Kelly affair has exacerbated the crisis.
The latest opinion poll today showed that 52 per cent of the public trust Blair, who is on holiday at a British pop star’s villa in Barbados, very little or not at all.
Members of parliament said civil servants like Tom Kelly should not be involved in any sort of political meddling. “It isn’t their job to put a political spin on government information,” said Kevin Brennan, a senior parliamentarian in Blair’s Labour Party.
Last Friday, the government launched a judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the suicide. Senior figures including Blair will be called to testify in coming months.
Blair’s spokesman said he had linked David Kelly’s name with Walter Mitty in an off-the-record briefing about potential lines of inquiry into the scientist’s suicide.
“It was meant as one of several questions facing all parties, not as a definitive statement of my view, or that of the government,” he said.