Tony Blair said today that he took responsibility for weapons expert David Kelly being named as the source for the BBC report that Downing Street had "sexed up" the Government's Iraqi arms dossier.
The Prime Minister said: "I was really not sure what the right way to handle this issue was but I knew that we should not be in a situation where we could be accused of misleading the Commons foreign affairs committee."
He said that he was not trying to shirk his responsibility as Prime Minister and added: "The responsibility is mine, at the end of the day. I take the decision as Prime Minister but I wanted to be able to say that we had played it by the book."
Lord Hutton's inquiry is investigating circumstances leading up to the death of government weapons expert Dr Kelly, whose body was found in woods near his Oxfordshire home, with his wrist slashed.
Mr Blair said the emergence of Dr Kelly as the BBC's source had placed him "in a quandary right from the very beginning."
Asked why so many senior Whitehall officials were involved in dealing with the affair, the Prime Minister said that the issue was "dominant".
Lord Hutton asked what the quandary was that they had faced.
The Prime Minister replied: "What did you do? Did you inform the chair of the FAC (Commons foreign affairs committee) immediately, which was one possibility and which I have no doubt afterwards people said we should have done.
"Did you try to get greater clarity about whether this was the source or not? How did you handle this?"
Mr Blair said that after the possible source had come forward, he and the Government had acted in a responsible way.
He said that they had worked to "make absolutely sure" that no one could question their actions.
He said: "It was in order to make absolutely sure that at a later point when people would say what did you do, when did you know and who did you tell, that I could say that we handled this by the book."
He said it was important that it was not perceived that "politicians were moving the system" but they were taking a consensus view on the way to proceed.
Mr Blair said that on 7 July he had asked Sir David Omand, Downing Street security and intelligence co-orrdinator, and Sir Kevin Tebbit, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence to attend a meeting discuss the issue of Dr Kelly.
He said: "We discussed the issue and as I understood it, he was going to be re-interviewed ... the very clear view of all of us right at the outset was that if it became clear in all probability that he was the source, the information could not remain undisclosed."
Lord Hutton told the Prime Minister that presumably the Government was faced with two alternatives - to make a public statement or to inform the press.
Mr Blair replied: "I didn't feel we were in a position to move forward at that stage. Having agreed to re-interview him, it was best to wait for the outcome of that re-interview."
Lord Hutton asked if, in retrospect, it would have been "more appropriate" if the Government had come clean and made the statement saying that Dr Kelly was the source.
Mr Blair replied that making an upfront statement naming him was an alternative but that the reason for the hesitation was that "we could not be absolutely sure".
He said: "I seem to recollect there was some issue that Dr Kelly himself did not want to be named in the first wave of media focus on it.
"If we had named him at the start, I do not think that the outcome in terms of appearing in front of the FAC would have been any different," the Prime Minister said.
He emphasised that the decision was one made by civil servants but that he "took full responsibility for the decisions. I stand by them."
He added that he believed it was the right decision.
Mr Blair was asked if any concern was expressed about the pressure being placed on Dr Kelly.
He said: "Obviously, one of the things that was part of the conversation we were having was what Dr Kelly did, what sort of person was he, what sort of experience did he have.
"All I can say was that there was nothing in the conversation we had that would have alerted us to him being anything other than someone, you know, of a certain robustness who was used to dealing with the interchange between politics and the media.
"There was some discussion of how Dr Kelly was and how he would be. Obviously, one looks back on this with a different perception but the best I can say is there was nothing that struck me that 'there is a problem here'."Reuse content