Defiant Blair concedes errors of style but not of substance

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Tony Blair publicly retreated yesterday from his informal style of decision-making at the heart of Government and conceded significant reforms of the way intelligence would be handled in the future.

Tony Blair publicly retreated yesterday from his informal style of decision-making at the heart of Government and conceded significant reforms of the way intelligence would be handled in the future.

Replying to pointed criticisms of his style of Government by Lord Butler's inquiry, he promised that a formal cabinet committee would replace meetings of main ministers and officials in his Downing Street "den" in any future crisis.

The Prime Minister also agreed that intelligence assessments would in future be published separately from any Government case for action and would include any caveats included by the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Outlining the Government's response to the Butler Report, he said a senior MI6 officer had been appointed to oversee reform of the resources and the organisation's validation process, after Lord Butler found crucial intelligence underpinning the Government's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had been withdrawn. Mr Blair also conceded that the Secret Intelligence Service would review its relationship with the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Defence Intelligence Staff, whose staff raised serious concerns about the strength of assessments underlying the dossier.

He confirmed the appointment of William Ehrman, the director general of defence and intelligence at the Foreign Office, as the interim head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and said a long-term replacement would be appointed next year.

But in an unapologetic performance amid stormy scenes in the Commons Mr Blair defiantly defended his decision to overthrow Saddam. He told MPs: "At least Iraq has a future within its grasp and though it is correct that the liberation was not the legal case for war, it was, as I said frequently at the time, why we should go to war with a clear conscience and a strong heart. Removing Saddam was not a war crime, it was an act of liberation for the Iraq people."

He said Iraq was the "front line of the war against terrorism", adding: "The terrorists know that if they fail and Iraq succeeds, Iraq will hold out hope not just to millions of Iraqis but throughout the region and the Middle East. So whether for the war or against it ... today's struggle is one in which no one should be neutral."

The Prime Minister was repeatedly challenged over concerns about intelligence raised by Dr Brian Jones, the former head of nuclear, biological and chemical intelligence analysis at the Defence Intelligence Staff.

Mr Blair agreed that it "follows naturally" that there should be clear procedures for intelligence officers such as Dr Jones to take their objections to judgements to the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Pressed to admit he had made mistakes in the run-up to war, Mr Blair said: "Of course, which is why I said at the beginningthese are the thingsI believe that the Butler report has identified we should change. What I do not accept is that it was a mistake to go to war."

Mr Blair dismissed interventions by Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, who demanded to know why Mr Blair had described the intelligence on Iraq as "extensive, detailed and authoritative". He quoted conclusions from JIC assessments and said: "The one thing that is absolutely absurd is to suggest that anyone, given that Joint Intelligence Committee assessment, would have said 'Saddam Hussein? Weapons of mass destruction? I don't think that's much of a problem.'"

Mr Howard retorted: "You told the country that the basis of the intelligence was extensive, detailed and authoritative. That was wrong; why did you say that to the country?"

Mr Blair replied: "The notion that reading the JIC assessments you would not have concluded, clearly, because the judgements of the intelligence committee are the key things, if they judged that Iraq has a WMD capability and weapons I simply say, what Prime Minister would sit there and say 'well that may be what they judge and conclude but I am going to come to a different conclusion'?

"Imagine what would have happened afterwards had the threat materialised." Mr Blair insisted that he did not mislead the nation by failing to include caveats in JIC reports when he published the Government's dossier on Iraq's WMD.

He said: "The intelligence really left little doubt about Saddam and weapons of mass destruction ... and made it absolutely clear that we were entitled on the basis of that to go back to the United Nations and say there was a continuing threat from Saddam Hussein."

He insisted that Lord Butler's conclusions "makes it clear that he had both the strategic intent, illicit procurement of materials and was developing ballistic missiles in defiance of UN resolutions. In other words, it would have been entirely open to us, even on this evidence, to say he was in breach of UN resolutions."