| Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street on Wednesday. (Reuters)
London, Jan. 28: With one bound, he was free. Tony Blair was cleared today by Lord Hutton in a long report into the circumstances of the death last July of David Kelly, the British weapons inspector.
Just when it seemed Blair’s job as Prime Minister might be on the line, his government survived a crucial Commons vote last night on the issue of top-up fees for university students by 316 votes to 311, a majority — his narrowest ever — of only five.
And today, when it was thought he and his government would come in for stinging criticism for Kelly’s death, Lord Hutton all but gave him a glowing report. The defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, who was expected to resign, also lives to fight another day.
It was the BBC which drew most of the flak. Hutton dismissed the charge made by the BBC defence reporter, Andrew Gilligan, that the government’s dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction published in September, 2002, was “sexed up” or that the government had deliberately inserted a claim that Saddam could fire his biological and chemical weapons within 45 minutes, knowing that to be false.
Hutton drew a distinction between using intelligence which subsequently proved to be false and using intelligence to prop up the case for war knowing it to be false. The latter was a “grave allegation” — and on this Blair was not guilty.
Hutton said that when Blair’s former spokesman, Alastair Campbell, complained about Gilligan’s report, the BBC did not check the authenticity of the journalist’s report. He ruled that the BBC’s editorial and management system was “defective” — a damning indictment on an organisation which considers its journalism to be the best in the world.
The charge against Blair that he had “leaked” Kelly’s name to the media was also dismissed by Hutton, who said the Prime Minister had not behaved in a “dishonourable, underhand or duplicitous way”.
Hutton agreed with the Prime Minister, the Joint Intelligence Committee and the ministry of defence that once Kelly had come forward and told his line managers that he had met Gilligan, it was inevitable his name should come forward.
There was relatively muted criticism of the ministry of defence whose officials did not tell Kelly his name would be confirmed by the ministry’s press office if it was raised by journalists. There was criticism, too, of Kelly whose meeting with Gilligan was improper, Hutton ruled. But in his concluding remarks, Hutton said that Kelly had been a very distinguished scientist.
As to his death, Hutton had no doubts that Kelly had committed suicide by cutting his wrist and swallowing a large number of tablets. No one could have foreseen he would take his own life but Kelly was under intense pressure because the inconsistencies in various accounts he had given were starting to be exposed.
In the Commons, a jubilant Blair, looking like a man snatched from the gallows at the last second, said he accepted the report “in full” and called for an apology from those who had said he had lied.
This was a reference to the Tory Opposition leader, Michael Howard, who looked crushed today by Hutton’s overwhelming endorsement of the Prime Minister.
Hutton made it clear, however, that his terms of reference were only to examine the circumstances of Kelly’s death. He found that the government had neither “sexed up” the intelligence or used intelligence it believed to be false.
But because of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, many people will still continue to argue that the intelligence was faulty and that Blair took Britain to war on grounds that have not been backed up by the evidence that has emerged from Iraq.
But, today, as a relieved Blair basked in the glory of the Hutton report, that distinction has been lost.