A sorry, sorry affair

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David Kelly, the scientist at the centre of Tony Blair's troubles over the war on Iraq, will be buried today amid claims that Downing Street attempted to smear his reputation.

As Dr Kelly's family gathered in Oxfordshire for his funeral, the Prime Minister faced calls to sack his official spokesman, Tom Kelly, for describing Dr Kelly as a Walter Mitty-style fantasist.

Mr Kelly denied attempting to denigrate the memory of the weapons expert but conceded he had made a "mistake" and apologised "unreservedly" to Dr Kelly's family.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, wrote to Dr Kelly's widow, Janice, to offer his own apology on behalf of the Government. He also enclosed Mr Kelly's statement.

Mr Prescott stressed that any disciplinary action was a matter for Sir Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary, as MPs from all parties condemned the "culture of spin" that dominated Whitehall.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said Mr Kelly's position had looked "untenable" initially and remained "difficult" after his apology. Glenda Jackson, a Labour MP and former minister, said Mr Kelly's statement was "insufficient" and he must go.

Dr Kelly, a former UN weapons inspector, apparently committed suicide after being outed as a mole during the battle between Downing Street and the BBC over the case for war against Iraq.

Mr Blair called for "respect and restraint" while an inquiry headed by Lord Hutton investigated his death. But The Independent revealed on Monday that a senior Whitehall source had suggested that Dr Kelly had misled both the Ministry of Defence and Andrew Gilligan, a BBC journalist, over claims that a government dossier on the Iraqi threat was "sexed up".

After 24 hours in which Downing Street at first denied and then partially admitted that a senior Whitehall source had used the phrase "Walter Mitty", Mr Kelly issued a full apology yesterday.

He confirmed that he used the term not just once, but in several conversations with journalists. He stressed, however, that he had thought he was conducting a "private" conversation and insisted he was simply outlining issues facing the Hutton inquiry.

He said in a statement issued by No 10: "It was meant as one of several questions facing all parties, not as a definitive statement of my view, or that of the Government.

"I now recognise that even that limited form of communication was a mistake, given the current climate. I, therefore, unreservedly apologise to Dr Kelly's widow and her family for having intruded on their grief."

Initially, Downing Street denied The Independent's story, stating that "nobody with either the Prime Minister's or anyone else's approval in Downing Street would say such a thing".

It was forced to change its position and eventually issued a statement admitting that a senior official had given a briefing, but it was not "official".

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's PM programme, Mr Kennedy criticised the suggestion implicit in Mr Kelly's statement that it would have been appropriate to make such comments in private. The Liberal Democrat leader attacked "this rather curious and amoral view that it is all right for civil servants ... to brief and use this kind of language and cast aspersions of this type on somebody's character who is not yet in their grave, as long as it remains private".

The Conservative MP David Davis, who shadows the Deputy Prime Minister, said: "This is a reflection of the corruption of our Civil Service by spin, where government ends justify any means irrespective of impartiality or the reputation of a good man. It's this culture that has to be booted out of Whitehall forthwith."

Kevin Brennan, the Labour MP for Cardiff West who sits on the Commons Public Administration Committee, said he believed Sir Andrew Turnbull should interview Mr Kelly about his actions.

Mr Brennan told The World At Oneon Radio 4 that the Cabinet Secretary had to establish whether or not there had been a breach of the civil service code. "I suspect there may well have been. It appears that Mr Kelly was briefing journalists off the record with a line that wasn't a line he was supposed to take on behalf of the Government," he said.

Ms Jackson said Mr Kelly should "not be afforded the luxury of resigning - he should be sacked". She added: "No 10's capacity to disgust us would seem positively boundless."

A Downing Street spokeswoman said yesterday that Mr Blair had been informed of the reports, but she refused to discuss his reaction. "Everybody who needs to know, knows, and that includes the Prime Minister," she said.

Simon Kelner, the editor of The Independent, defended his decision to publish Mr Kelly's comments - attributed to an unnamed "senior Whitehall source" - in Monday's paper. He said: "We knew it was going to be a controversial story, but we knew it was well sourced and we had absolutely no qualms at all about running it."