Bloodied Campbell comes back from the brink

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Indy Politics

Less than a fortnight ago, at the height of the allegations that the Government had misled the nation to wage war on Iraq, Alastair Campbell was reported to be "on the brink of resignation".

Even a week ago, the BBC was accusing him of waging a "vendetta", and Andrew Gilligan, the reporter at the centre of the affair, was so bullish he threatened to sue a minister for libel. But by yesterday, reports of the political death of Mr Campbell were seen to be greatly exaggerated.

Far from bowing out to cash in on his memoirs, the Prime Minister's director of communications and strategy has been more high-profile than ever. He has written letters to the BBC and given a television interview to deny the charges against him.

The BBC will launch an inquiry. Mr Gilligan faced further embarrassment yesterday when the verbatim quotes from his intelligence source were questioned. Instead of writing as his source spoke, he typed the quotes on his Palm Pilot later.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman went on the offensive, attacking BBC Radio 4's Today programme for refusing for the second day running to allow Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, on the show. The programme asked to interview Mr Hoon but pulled out when he insisted on discussing the WMD issue.

When the Foreign Affairs Select Committee publishes its report on Monday into the Government's handling of intelligence material on Iraq, Downing Street expects to declare victory over the BBC. The report is likely to be highly critical of February's so-called dodgy dossier, which in essence plagiarised a student's PhD thesis.

But Mr Campbell, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Mr Blair have already admitted they will take on the chin the charge that the second document was bungled. For them, and for the BBC, the most serious allegations centred on the September dossier outlining the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

On the day Mr Gilligan broadcast his report on 29 May, the BBC knew the story would cause huge problems for No 10. The report quoted a "British official involved in the preparation of the dossier" who said a claim that Saddam could deploy biological and chemical weapons within 45 minutes was inserted at the behest of Downing Street and "against our wishes".

As Mr Gilligan said in his piece: "The 45 minutes really is not just a detail, it did go to the heart of the case that Saddam was an imminent threat."

Within hours of the story being broadcast, Mr Campbell was briefing journalists that it was "totally and utterly false". Despite this being repeated by Mr Blair, the allegation would not go away and the Foreign Affairs Select Committee seized on the chance to investigate. Mr Campbell twice refused to give evidence. But after reading an Independent on Sunday report on his involvement, he decided to go public.

Mr Gilligan had also written an article for The Mail on Sunday that named Mr Campbell for the first time. Mr Campbell knew he could prove the 45-minute claim first appeared in the first draft of the September dossier. "From the moment Gilligan targeted Alastair, we knew we had him," a Labour source said.

Mr Blair's official spokesman cranked up the issue yesterday, saying the BBC could not "shift the goalposts or wriggle away" from its original claims.

Monday will be a difficult day, not just for Mr Gilligan but also for Richard Sambrook, the director of BBC News who has backed him.

Mr Campbell told friends yesterday that he was still "a big fan of the BBC". Precisely because he held it in such high regard, he wanted it to admit an inaccuracy. But if the corporation fails to admit its mistake, their war will descend into further bitterness.