Tony Blair was accused yesterday of exaggerating the evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and putting his own "spin" on a report by the group searching for Saddam Hussein's arsenal.
Opposition parties and Labour MPs said the Prime Minister's claim that the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) had found "massive evidence" that Saddam had weapons programmes was bogus and made a nonsense of Downing Street's attempt to stop "spinning."
Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: "The Prime Minister went too far. He has repeatedly said that he believes weapons of mass destruction will be found.
"In their absence, he must resist the temptation to overstate the case." Mr Kennedy added: " In the current climate of sensitivity about spin from Downing Street and with the final report from Lord Hutton due for publication early in the new year, Tony Blair should be more cautious."
Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said Mr Blair had misrepresented the group's interim report published in October. "I went and looked up what the ISG actually said, and what it actually said was that a clandestine network of laboratories and safe houses had been found, suitable for continuing chemical and biological weapons research.
"There was nothing about 'massive' and certainly nothing giving the indication that was given yesterday. He was using a statement of fact which, when you look at it, is not borne out by the survey group itself."
Mr Ancram said the row echoed the Government's "sexing up" of a dossier on Iraq's WMD. He added: "A prime minister should use language in relation to intelligence material with great care. This Prime Minister does not and I think he hasn't learnt the lesson that he can't live by spin."
Peter Kilfoyle, a former Labour defence minister, said: "He is certainly over-egging the pudding. Saddam was not the casus belli - it was WMD. Until they are found, there is still a huge question mark that will not go away."
Downing Street defended Mr Blair's remarks, which came in an interview with the British Forces Broadcasting Service. His official spokesman said some detail in the ISG's report that was sometimes overlooked showed Saddam was in breach of United Nations resolutions. It would also have triggered a report back to the UN Security Council and authorised the use of force under resolution 1441 passed in November last year.
He said: "What I don't think anyone can doubt is that there is a systematic programme of deception and concealment and that scientists involved in WMD programmes were threatened with death to stop them talking to UN inspectors before the war."
Mr Blair's spokesman said the report spoke of a clandestine network of laboratories and safe houses, a laboratory complex possibly involving human testing of biological weapons agents and materials hidden in the garden of an Iraqi scientist. The ISG had also uncovered evidence that Iraqi scientists were "living in fear" and one had been shot dead only hours after meeting a member of the group, the spokesman said.Reuse content