'Blame game' that boils down to the survival of the fittest

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One senior Labour MP surveyed the manoeuvring as senior figures at Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence sought yesterday to distance themselves from the decision to unmask the government scientist Dr David Kelly

"Everyone is blaming someone else" he said. "It's a pretty horrible spectacle. It's the survival of the fittest - political Darwinism."

Senior MoD officials insist Downing Street was closely involved in the naming of Dr Kelly. But aides of Tony Blair argue that Number 10 only gave "advice" to the MoD, which was firmly in the driving seat. Despite Mr Blair's call for "respect and restraint, no recrimination", some of the key figures are playing down their role in the decision to thrust Dr Kelly into the spotlight.

Yesterday, Mr Blair said he did not authorise the leaking of Dr Kelly's name. On Saturday, Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, said the disclosure was "not my responsibility". Their allies have been active behind the scenes, too.

A former Labour minister said: "Some people can't stop spinning - even now. I hope and think Lord Hutton will stand up to them. It's much harder to spin an inquiry."

Dr Kelly was outed through a highly unusual process under which the MoD agreed to confirm the identity of an anonymous official who had admitted he had met the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan - if the media approached it with the right name. Senior Whitehall officials believe it is inconceivable that Mr Hoon did not approve such an important decision, and believe he would have discussed it with Alastair Campbell, the Downing Street director of communications.

Mr Blair is expected to tell the Hutton inquiry the MoD was the "lead department" because Dr Kelly's position was essentially a personnel matter. One Blair adviser said: "There is a difference between taking decisions and seeking advice. All along, Number 10's message was that the MoD should be 100 per cent happy with what it was doing. There wasn't a great debate about it."

MoD insiders insist that such a delicate and important matter could not possibly have been decided without Downing Street's active involvement. They said detailed records had been kept of liaison with "all other government departments", which will be made available to Lord Hutton if he wants to see them.

Sir Kevin Tebbit, the MoD's permanent secretary, is expected to be questioned by the Hutton inquiry and senior Whitehall officials advised strongly against assuming that he wanted Dr Kelly exposed.

The Tories, who have close links with the MoD, have been contacted by MoD officials who claim Downing Street was heavily involved in the decision to out Dr Kelly. A senior Tory source said: "The military and the civil servants are seething because the leak inquiry became a witch-hunt. The atmosphere at the MoD is ghastly. People deeply regret not standing up to their political masters to put a stop to what happened to David Kelly."

The "blame game" kicked off at the weekend, when some Blair aides apparently sought to put a protective shield around Mr Campbell. "As far as we are concerned, this was done by the book," one source insisted. "But Downing Street was not involved in this process. It was purely an MoD operation."

At the same time, allies of Mr Hoon suggested the MoD's decision was handled by Sir Kevin. One said: "The officers took charge. To say it was politically motivated ignores the facts and is unfair to the politicians."

On Monday, Downing Street said the MoD was the "lead department" in handling the affair but, crucially, admitted that Number 10 was "consulted" on the process under which the MoD would confirm Dr Kelly's identity if a journalist put the right name to it. The three newspapers who first named Dr Kelly are expected to tell the inquiry that they worked out his identity from clues provided by the Government. Journalists were told that the official who disclosed his meeting with Mr Gilligan did not work in intelligence - as some BBC statements claimed - but was a technical expert and consultant who has worked for several government departments, including the MoD.

The Financial Times fed these characteristics into a search engine and came up with a long list of people who attended a 1999 conference on chemical weapons in Switzerland. Because there are only a few British experts in the field, Dr Kelly's name was the only one put by the FT to the MoD's director of news, Pam Teare, who confirmed it.

The Guardian offered three names to the MoD press office, which declined to approve the first two but then agreed Dr Kelly was the right one. The Times put more than 20 names to the MoD before it got lucky.

Lord Hutton may ask the newspapers whether they received additional help from Number 10 or the MoD in tracking down the mole. That, however, could raise the vexed issue of whether the newspapers will breach the journalists' code by revealing their sources - the reason the BBC resisted the Government's pressure to disclose its informant.

The growing feeling in Whitehall is that the two people from the Government likely to face the most scrutiny at the inquiry are Mr Hoon and Mr Campbell. The mood music at the MoD yesterday appeared to be that if Mr Hoon had to resign over Dr Kelly's death, Mr Campbell would be likely to go with him.