The Government performed a surprise U-turn yesterday by agreeing that Alastair Campbell should be questioned by MPs tomorrow about allegations that Downing Street exaggerated the threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons programme to justify the war in Iraq.
Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy agreed to appear at a televised hearing of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, only three days after refusing for the second time to give evidence. Mr Campbell persuaded the Prime Minister to let him "set the record straight" after The Independent on Sunday disclosed that he was likely to be blamed when the MPs publish their report next month.
The paper reported that Mr Campbell would be held responsible for the so-called "dodgy dossier" issued by the Prime Minister's office in January. Downing Street said it was compiled from intelligence sources but it included sections lifted from a student thesis. Mr Campbell will also be questioned about claims that a second dossier, saying Iraq could deploy chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes, was "sexed up" on No 10's orders. The MPs will ask him whether the report's publication was delayed because the security services found that Saddam did not pose a significantly greater threat than at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
Clare Short, who resigned from the Cabinet last month, told the committee last week that Mr Campbell was one of a small group of Blair advisers taking the key decisions over the war in Iraq and that he also issued "propaganda".
Tomorrow's hearing comes amid speculation at Westminster that Mr Campbell is about to quit after nine years as Mr Blair's closest aide. He has dismissed these reports as "wishful thinking".
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, told the committee in a letter yesterday that he and Mr Blair had reviewed whether Mr Campbell should give evidence after reading transcripts of its hearings and a newspaper report - a reference to The Independent on Sunday. Mr Straw said Mr Campbell wanted to deny testimony by Glen Rangwala, a Cambridge expert, that the January dossier was produced for him by four people, including three of his staff. "I should make clear that, throughout, Mr Campbell himself has wanted to appear before the committee to rebut the serious allegations that have been made by journalists and others in relation to both dossiers," said Mr Straw.
Previously, the Government had argued that allowing Mr Campbell to give evidence would breach the normal practice on officials appearing before select committees.
Explaining the U-turn, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said Mr Campbell would give evidence about his work as chairman of the Government's cross-departmental Iraqi Communications Group. Referring to The Independent on Sunday report, he said: "That prompted us to think again about the precedence issue and this is different in that Alastair was acting as chairman of a cross-departmental communications committee and therefore the questioning falls into that category rather than about personal advice he would have given to the Prime Minister." But Downing Street rejected the committee's plea for Mr Blair to give evidence.
Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, welcomed the Government's "partial climbdown" but said the Prime Minister should now appear before the committee himself. John Maples, a Tory member of the committee, said: "We are talking here about decisions about the country going to war. If an unelected adviser is in a position to influence decisions like that, it is very serious. But it reflects on the Prime Minister more than it reflects on Mr Campbell."
Welcoming Mr Campbell's decision, Donald Anderson, the committee's Labour chairman, said: "It will provide an opportunity for him to set out his side of the story in public." Bernard Jenkin, the shadow Defence Secretary said the Government's "dramatic climbdown" strengthened the need for a full judicial inquiry.
Mr Campbell's decision will be seen as a high-risk move by some MPs. But Blair allies hope it will help to clear the air over Iraq's weapons. Joe Haines, who was press secretary to Harold Wilson, said: "He [Mr Campbell] will knock the stuffing out of them."
TEN QUESTIONS CAMPBELL MUST ANSWER
1. Could you explain your role in overseeing the Government's dossiers outlining the case for war?
2. Was the first dossier delayed because intelligence failed to provide evidence that justified war?
3. Were you aware of any pressure placed on the security services to provide or play up incriminating evidence?
4. Did you have a role in exaggerating the threat from Iraq, including the warning that chemical and biological weapons could be launched in 45 minutes on a British target?
5. Why do you think so much old information in the dossier was passed off as new intelligence?
6. Why was a Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) report that played down the threat posed by Saddam suppressed?
7. Why was the second, "dodgy" dossier "sexed up" using a 10-year-old thesis found on the internet?
8. Why was a claim of "aiding" opposition groups changed to "supporting" terrorist groups?"
9. Why did you admit to the JIC, which had refused to sign off the second dossier, that this document did not meet the "required standard of accuracy"?
10. Were you part of a small Downing Street coterie making war policy while bypassing Cabinet?