Blair and Howard renew hostilities over Hutton

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The Prime Minister became embroiled in another bitter row with Tory leader Michael Howard today over the naming of weapons expert David Kelly.

For the second week running, Mr Blair was repeatedly pressed in the Commons by Mr Howard whether he stood by his denial of having authorised the naming of Dr Kelly.

To Tory jeers at question time, the Prime Minister insisted he stood by "all that I have said in relation to this issue".

He told the Opposition Leader it was absurd to try and pre-empt the Hutton report on the affair, which is due out shortly.

Mr Howard said his refusal to answer a straightforward question - "yes or no" - showed how "desperately dodgy" the Prime Minister's position had become.

Mr Blair, in turn, accused Mr Howard of "total opportunism" and having made up his mind on the issue before the Hutton report is published.

He confirmed that he would "lead the Government's case" following publication of the report

As the row erupted, Mr Howard demanded: "Will you now finally confirm that you will lead for the Government in the debate on the Hutton report?"

Mr Blair replied: "As I said at the weekend, the details of the debate - whether there is a vote on it, who speaks on it - will be decided at a later time and announced in the normal way.

"You will have to be patient. But I can assure you I have absolutely no intention of doing anything other than leading the Government's case on this issue. That is important and I look forward to doing so."

Mr Howard said he was sorry the Prime Minister could not give a straight answer to the question.

"Last week you said you were looking forward to the debate. Now you've got cold feet!"

Mr Howard demanded: "When you were asked by Sir David Frost on Sunday about your use last week of the word 'totality' you said it meant 'everything that has been said, not just taking one bit out here or there'.

"Does that mean that some bits out here or there of what you said (to journalists) on 22 July weren't true?"

Mr Blair told him: "No it doesn't at all. But what it does mean to say is that when we have a report that is going to be published, as we know within the next few weeks, it is sensible to wait until the report is actually published before we debate it.

"What's perfectly obvious from everything you've been saying in the past few days, is that you intend to pre-judge the report. I don't intend to do so."

Mr Howard responded: "That won't do. I'm asking you about what you said in this House seven days ago and in a television studio three days ago.

"Let me put to you this very simple and straightforward question. When, on 22 July, you denied authorising the naming of David Kelly: is that a statement you stand by or is that one of the bits here or there that you want us to ignore?"

Mr Blair said: "No it isn't. But what is important, as I said before and say again, is let us wait for the report.

"It may not do for you. I'm very sorry about that. But in my view when we have a report that is about to be published, what most people will regard as sensible is wait to make our judgments until the day of the report itself.

"What's perfectly obvious, not least from the 50-page document put out by the Conservative Party a few days ago, is that they intend to make up their minds now. It really doesn't matter what the report says. They have already made up their minds. I will make up mine when the report is published."

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