| Tony Blair on his way to testify in London on Thursday. (Reuters)
London, Aug. 28: Tony Blair today gave his much anticipated evidence to the Hutton inquiry into the circumstances leading to the apparent suicide of the weapons expert, Dr David Kelly.
Well-briefed by his lawyers and close advisers, the best that can be said for the prime minister is that he did not incriminate himself. There was no blood on the carpet after he had finished being questioned in Room 73 of the royal courts of justice at the Strand.
Blair indirectly shifted the blame for the outing of Kelly on to his senior civil servants but acknowledged that as prime minister he was ultimately responsible for everything. He made it clear, however, that he was personally guilty of nothing.
Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and burgundy tie, the prime minister looked calm and composed when he took his seat promptly at 10.30 am. Occasionally, he fiddled with his glasses. If anyone was nervous, it was his inquisitor, James Dingemans, QC, who seemed more awed by the occasion, also fiddled with his glasses, clasped and unclasped his hands and ran his finger under his short collar.
At the end of the session, the prime minister swept away in his armour-plated Jaguar.
As to whether he had shed any light, there will be varying opinions. Even as Blair was giving evidence, the harsh, real world intruded. It was announced by the ministry of defence that the 50th British serviceman, Fusilier Russell Beeston, 26, had been killed in Iraq. His was the 21st British casualty since the formal end of hostilities.
Was the war justified' The Hutton inquiry is not examining this central issue but Blair said today he had reacted strongly when the BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, had said on the Today programme that the government had “sexed up” its dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to strengthen the case for war. “This was an absolutely fundamental charge,” he told the Hutton inquiry. “This was an allegation were it true that would have merited my resignation.”
He added: “This was an attack that went not just to the heart of the Prime Minister but also the way your intelligence services operated. It went, in a sense, to the credibility, I felt, of the country.”
Blair was less convincing when he said that the dossier, with its claim that Saddam Hussein could deploy his weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, had not been published to make the case for war. Ordinary people in Britain will wonder if that had not been the primary reason why it had been published at all'
He said: “The purpose of the dossier was to respond to the call to disclose intelligence that we knew, but at that stage, the strategy was not to use the dossier as the immediate reason for going to conflict.” His central point was that the 45-minute claim had not been inserted at the last minute under pressure from Downing Street and, specifically, his director of communications, Alastair Campbell — Gilligan’s main accusation.
“The things that absolutely stood out and were extraordinary, in my view, were one: that this had been — the 45-minute claim had been — inserted into the dossier at the behest of Number 10 Downing Street. Two that it was done by us — I think the words were ‘probably knowing” — that it was wrong, and three that we had done it contrary to the wishes of the intelligence services.”
He said: “Yes, well, I mean you know, look, any person listening to that would think that we had done something improper, not that we just got the facts mixed up. I mean in my submission, I think that anyone who listened to that — this was the purpose of it.
“The whole thing since then had has been, not did the government get this wrong, but did the government dupe us'”
It is fair to say that many people in Britain do feel the public has been duped into going to a war on a false premise. The weakness in Blair’s case is that no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have been uncovered, though the prime minister had now taken to talking of WMD “programmes”.
There were long sequences today when Blair was questioned about how he had heard the news of the BBC broadcast and later that Kelly had come forward to confess he had spoken to Gilligan.
On the naming of Kelly, it was Blair’s case that he accepted the advice of senior civil servants who felt that his identity would inevitably come out. “We handled this by the book, in the sense of with the advice of senior civil servants. Not as I say to pass responsibility to them but in order to make sure that this was not, as it were, the politicians driving the system, but us taking a consensus view about what was the right way to proceed.”
This answer could have been taken from the BBC TV comedy programme, Yes Minister.
Yesterday, the defence secretary, Geoffrey Hoon, who is expected to lose his job, told the inquiry that the decision to name Kelly had been taken by Downing Street. After Blair’s evidence, the Liberal Democratic Party leader Charles Kennedy, pointed out some glaring contradictions in the prime minister’s statements.
Kennedy said: “Today, he said he took responsibility for identifying Dr Kelly to the press. Yet, shortly after Dr Kelly died, he told journalists: ‘Emphatically I did not authorise the leaking of the name of David Kelly.’”