Tony Blair performed a hasty U-turn yesterday when Downing Street agreed to an inquiry into the intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction on which he took Britain to war in Iraq.
After months of resisting demands for an investigation despite the failure to find any WMD, the Prime Minister climbed down on the day George Bush confirmed that an independent commission would look into the US intelligence on Saddam's arsenal. In Britain, the inquiry is expected to be conducted by a committee of MPs and peers, with an independent chairman.
Last night it was reported that the chairman was likely to be Lord Butler of Brockwell, the former cabinet secretary who became master of University College Oxford after stepping down as head of the civil service in 1998. But there was confusion over the details as MPs waited for the terms of reference.
Talks about how the inquiry would work hit a hitch after Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, failed to agree terms with the Government during a telephone call with Mr Blair. Precise details of the disagreement were unclear, but Mr Kennedy had earlier argued that the inquiry should take into account the workings of government and political decisions, as well as the nature of intelligence reports. In a letter to Mr Blair he said that the inquiry should be transparent, and led by someone from outside active party politics.
Although ministers said intelligence showed Saddam posed a real and current threat, there were warnings from MPs that intelligence chiefs should not be made scapegoats for a political decision to go to war.
Mr Blair has stonewalled in the face of growing all-party demands for an inquiry, saying that people should wait until the Iraq Survey Group, which is hunting for weapons, produces its final report. But with no deadline set, his increasingly untenable line was washed away when Washington made clear the US President was to abandon his opposition to an inquiry.
Mr Blair's official spokesman said the decision had been taken after the Hutton report cleared the Government of allegations that it interfered with, falsified or hyped the intelligence on WMD. He said: "That allows us to address ... the perfectly valid question that people have asked about WMD." The inquiry is expected to look at the quality of the intelligence and the assessments based on it. But the Tories and Liberal Democrats said it should also consider the Government's handling of it.
Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary who resigned from the Cabinet over the war, said the inquiry should be public and completed quickly. "The British people are entitled to know why we went to war on a false prospectus," he said. "It would be grotesque if the intelligence agencies were now to carry the can for what was ultimately a political decision."
Some MPs expressed fears that Mr Blair would hide behind the inquiry, just as he refused to be drawn on the Kelly affair while Lord Hutton's investigation was under way. But he is likely to want to see it completed well before the election.
In a report yesterday, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said the US-led coalition had lost credibility over the failure to find WMD in Iraq and may have increased the risk of terror strikes. Andrew Mackinlay, a Labour member, said: "I think clearly there is a crisis of confidence now, both in Parliament and outside, about both the competence of our security and intelligence services and the analysis that was given of the raw intelligence."Reuse content