Tony Blair was forced on to the defensive over the David Kelly affair yesterday as Michael Howard, the Tory leader, landed a series of damaging blows about the Prime Minister's role in the unmasking of the government scientist.
Mr Howard deftly exploited the differences between Mr Blair's version - that it was "completely untrue" he had authorised the naming of Dr Kelly - and that of Sir Kevin Tebbit, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence.
Sir Kevin told the Hutton inquiry that the strategy which led to the identification of Dr Kelly was agreed at a meeting chaired by Mr Blair on 8 July, 11 days before the weapons expert committed suicide.
The clash followed revelations that No 10 had written to Lord Hutton two months ago in an apparent attempt to explain the discrepancies, leading to accusations that the Government was trying to influence the report,which Lord Hutton denied yesterday.
Mr Howard said in the Commons: "Either the permanent secretary or the Prime Minister is not telling the truth."
The fierce exchanges during Prime Minister's Questions ensure that Mr Blair's role will be under intense scrutiny when Lord Hutton publishes the results of his inquiry later this month. While insisting Mr Howard should wait for the report's publication, he admitted he would have to resign if it was found he had lied.
He also adopted what appeared to be legalistic language when he said: "I stand by the totality of what I said at the time." His carefully chosen words are believed to refer to the distinction he made then between leaking Dr Kelly's name and confirming his identity "once the name is out" - as the MoD duly did to journalists.
Mr Blair's original remarks were made during a flight in the Far East just after Dr Kelly's death last July.
Tories were buoyed by Mr Howard's confident assurance he was looking forward to debating the report with Mr Blair, and compared it with the Prime Minister's rather unconvincing reply of "So am I."
Lord Hutton relieved some of the pressure on Mr Blair yesterday by disclosing that the Government was not the only party to make a final submission to him after he finished taking evidence last October. The law lord said that he also received submissions from the BBC, its journalist Andrew Gilligan and the Kelly family.
Lord Hutton said: "There was nothing surprising or unexpected or of special significance in the making of these written submissions."
Although he wanted the documents to be published, he had decided not to do so, after the parties claimed that would result in trial by media.
It is understood that while the Government tried to explain apparent discrepancies in the accounts given by Mr Blair and Sir Kevin, lawyers for the Kelly family have pointed out discrepancies in what was said by a wide number of government witnesses about the naming strategy and the "duty of care" exercised by the Ministry of Defence. Mr Gilligan is said to have attempted to explain the circumstances surrounding his communications with members of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, in which he revealed that Dr Kelly was a source for the BBC journalist Susan Watts.
After Lord Hutton delivers his report, Dr Kelly's widow Janice will make a statement. Yesterday, her solicitor Peter Jacobsen said: "I am sure that Lord Hutton's report will be scrupulously fair, and he will not let himself be pressurised."Reuse content