Blair flies home to face tough questions over his role

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair flew back to Britain from his summer holiday yesterday and began to prepare for his historic appearance before the Hutton inquiry next week. After three weeks in the Caribbean with his family, the Prime Minister touched down at Gatwick and was whisked off to Chequers for consultation with government lawyers.

Perhaps mindful of criticism of their "freebie" holidays, the Blairs and their four children travelled in economy class on their British Airways flight back from Sir Cliff Richard's £3m villa in Barbados.

Mr Blair will give evidence to the inquiry into the death of David Kelly on Thursday, the day after Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, appears in the witness box.

During his trip, Downing Street has been hit by revelations at the Hutton inquiry, with the workings of Whitehall laid bare by eight days of testimony and a mass of documentary evidence.

Hundreds of people are expected to queue at the Royal Courts of Justice in London for the chance to see the Prime Minister as a witness facing examination by James Dingemans QC, counsel for the inquiry, and Lord Hutton.

Although John Major appeared before the Scott inquiry in 1994, he was never personally implicated in the arms-to-Iraq affair and the Ministry of Defence turned out to be the department most involved. Before the inquiry had even begun, Tom Kelly, Mr Blair's official spokesman, was forced to apologise for describing Dr Kelly as a "Walter Mitty"-style fantasist.

The Prime Minister will probably want to portray himself as being above the fray, insisting that the handling of the Kelly was left to the "internal procedures" of the MoD.

So far, the inquiry has only offered tempting but oblique references to Mr Blair. It revealed that he was first told on 4 July that an MoD official had come forward to admit contacting the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan.

Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's chief of staff, made clear that it was Alastair Campbell and Mr Hoon who were pushing for action on the Kelly case over the crucial weekend of 5 and 6 July. Mr Campbell and the Defence Secretary wanted to make Dr Kelly give evidence to MPs, but Mr Blair held off until more evidence was gleaned from a second interview on Monday, 7 July.

Martin Howard, the deputy chief of Defence Intelligence, said Mr Blair had demanded a fresh interview of Dr Kelly by the MoD. The Prime Minister decided "it would be sensible to get into a bit more detail into the differences between what Dr Kelly had said and Andrew Gilligan had claimed [he said]".

Sir Kevin Tebbit, the permanent undersecretary at the MoD, said Mr Blair had, with his senior officials, pushed for the release of a press statement announcing that a civil servant had come forward. He said that Mr Blair was "following this very very closely".

Perhaps most tricky will be finding exactly what the Prime Minister knew about the changes to the September dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Campbell is facing another examination over his own role in negotiations over the dossier with John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Many other No 10 officials were clearly heavily involved in the dossier's production and Mr Blair will have to explain just what he knew and when. Jonathan Powell, a close aide to the Prime Minister, said he had warned on 17 September that it would be wrong for Mr Blair to claim in the Government's dossier that Iraq posed an "imminent threat" to the world.

A week later, when Mr Blair presented the dossier to the Commons, he said Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programme was "up and running now" and posed a "current and serious threat".

Passengers on his British Airways Barbados flight said the Blairs travelled economy class, although their front-row cabin seats ensured they had more leg room than fellow travellers. Livingstone Prescott, a 51-year-old builder from Forest Gate, east London, who was on the flight, said the Blairs had mainly "kept themselves to themselves", with only one or two passengers trying to talk to them.

BLAIR'S IN-TRAY

Tuition fees: The Government's highly controversial plans to allow universities to charge students £3,000 in tuition fees will emerge in a bill in the Queen's Speech in November. With more than 140 Labour MPs having signed an early-day motion calling on ministers to abandon the idea, and the Tories and Liberal Democrats also opposing it, Mr Blair is facing the prospect of his first Commons defeat on a bill since he came to power.

Foundation Hospitals: Mr Blair endured his lowest majority when the Health and Social Care Bill scraped through its Report Stage in the Commons with a majority of just 35. The Bill will go to the Lords when Parliament returns for a brief session next month. If the Lords inserts wrecking amendments, ministers will face a tough decision as to whether to risk a Commons defeat at Third Reading.

TUC and Labour conferences: Union leaders have warned that they intend to marshal their forces. With a new breed of left-wing general secretaries, Mr Blair will be heavily criticised at the TUC, but he will be more worried about losing votes at the Labour conference.

Iraq: The Hutton Inquiry is important, but Mr Blair will perhaps be just as consumed by the problems in Iraq. He returns to a deepening security crisis in the country after the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad which left 23 dead, including British UN official Fiona Watson. The US is calling for more troops from different countries to be sent in.

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