Gordon Brown climbed down yesterday in the face of a growing revolt over his announcement that the inquiry into the Iraq war would be held in private.
Only three days after saying the investigation would be held behind closed doors, the Prime Minister disclosed that some hearings could take place in public after all. His retreat was revealed exclusively in The Independent yesterday.
In a letter to the inquiry chairman, Sir John Chilcot, Mr Brown asked him to consider holding some sessions in public. He urged Sir John to hold an open session to "explain in greater depth the significant scope and breadth of the inquiry" and to meet relatives of the servicemen killed in Iraq – either in public or in private – to explain how it would operate. He also asked him to take evidence on oath.
The U-turn came on a day in which the Government's original decision came under fierce attack. Lord Butler of Brockwell, the former cabinet secretary who investigated the intelligence about Iraqi weapons, said: "There is no prospect that an inquiry conducted entirely in private can purge the national feeling of mistrust.
"I reluctantly conclude that the form of the inquiry proposed by the Government has been dictated more by the Government's political interest than the national interest."
His searing criticism in a House of Lords debate was echoed by several other peers. And in a rare intervention in British politics, the former prime minister Sir John Major said: "The arrangements currently proposed run the risk of being viewed sceptically by some, and denounced as a whitewash by others. I am astonished the Government cannot understand this."
Last night Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the former Lord Chancellor and a close ally of Tony Blair, also voiced his displeasure at the plans to keep proceedings behind closed doors. Appearing on the BBC's Question Time he said: "If we're going to have an inquiry at all, it's got to be largely in public. There are so many lingering issues that if it's not done in public people won't have confidence in [it]."
The Prime Minister's spokesman insisted that a private investigation had never been a "theological issue". Mr Brown, in Brussels for a summit of EU leaders, told The Independent: "I am in favour of openness and transparency and we balance that with the interests of national security and the desire of people to give the information they want to the inquiry."
The furore exposed signs of tension in the Cabinet over the issue. Allies of the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, accused the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, of point-scoring, trying to undermine Mr Miliband and of occupying the "moral high ground" by calling on Wednesday for the inquiry to be as open as possible. A diplomatic source said: "One cannot help feeling that Ed Balls saw that a lot of Labour backbenchers would be against the format and tried to exploit the situation – surprising considering how close he is to Gordon Brown."
Mr Balls's subsequent claim that what he had meant was that he was in favour of the public giving evidence to the inquiry, rather than making the proceedings public, was described by one Foreign Office source as "disingenuous" and "laughable".
Ministers accused Mr Balls of flexing his muscles after Mr Brown dropped a plan to install him as chancellor two weeks ago. Mr Balls has taken a more upbeat line on future levels of health and education spending than the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, who kept his job in the ministerial shake-up.
William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said that Mr Brown's concessions did not go far enough. "We need to see a proper U-turn by the Prime Minister, not a half-hearted measure, in order to ensure that this inquiry is conducted in the way that the public and Parliament of this country deserve," he said.
Brown allies accused the Tories of "playing politics", saying they had told the Government they would support evidence being heard in private and then pulled the rug from under it.
Senior military officers welcomed the Prime Minister's climbdown.
Major General Julian Thompson, the former commander of the Royal Marines, said: "It is a pity that the Government could not foresee the disquiet which would be caused by the initial decision to hold the inquiry in private. The Independent deserves much credit for generating a debate on the matter and questioning the need for this kind of secrecy. I think it is common sense that the public has the right to as much information as possible." General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the Army at the time of the invasion, stressed that the sessions "must be heard in public whenever possible" to ensure "that there was no public suspicion of a cover up".
Major General Tim Cross, one of the British officers most extensively involved in the campaign, said: "I am personally very pleased that the committee has now been allowed the right to hear evidence in public. This is certainly a step in the right direction."