Blow to Blair as MPs announce new inquiry into lessons of crisis

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair's hopes of drawing a line under the David Kelly affair after the Hutton inquiry reports in November have been scuppered by a Commons investigation into the lessons of the crisis.

The Public Administration Select Committee is to examine the implications of the affair for the Civil Service and the way the Government machine works. It will ask to question Alastair Campbell, the outgoing Downing Street director of communications and strategy, his successor, David Hill, and Sir Andrew Turnbull, head of the home Civil Service.

The MPs will examine the changes announced by the Prime Minister that are designed to bring an end to government "spin" after Mr Campbell departs later this month. These include putting the Downing Street press operation under the control of a new senior permanent secretary to be appointed at the Cabinet Office.

Mr Blair had hoped Lord Hutton's report would enable the Government to "move on" from the crisis caused by Dr Kelly's death in July. But the Commons inquiry will again cast a public spotlight on the events leading up to his death, including the bitter dispute between Downing Street and the BBC over whether a dossier on Iraqi weapons was "sexed up".

Tony Wright, the committee's Labour chairman, said: "The Hutton inquiry is helping to answer many specific questions about the events leading to Dr Kelly's death. But its remit is limited, and inevitably it is raising a series of general concerns about wider issues of public administration which it is not designed to answer."

The move will not be welcomed by Downing Street. Although the Government has a duty to co-operate with select committee inquiries, No 10 might argue that Mr Campbell should not give evidence on the grounds that he will have left his post by the time of the investigation.

When Mr Campbell appeared before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, he gave a combative performance in which he intensified the row with the BBC by accusing it of telling lies.

Downing Street may be happier for Mr Hill to outline his plans for a "fresh start" in what has been described as a "post-spin era".

Others expected to be called to give evidence include Sir Bernard Ingham, who was the Downing Street chief press secretary when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister; Jonathan Haslam, who held the post under John Major; and two of Mr Campbell's former deputies, Tim Allan and Lance Price.

The exact scope of the MPs' investigation will depend on the wording of Lord Hutton's report. His inquiry relates to the circumstances leading to Dr Kelly's death, but it is not clear how widely he will interpret his remit.

Mr Wright said the new inquiry was a logical progression from the committee's previous work scrutinising the "new centre" of government that has been created since Labour came to power.

"We wish to look into these broader questions, and to draw conclusions about the ability of the system to prevent future problems, wherever they occur in Whitehall," he said.