Defiant Blair faces censure from Butler over Iraq war

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Tony Blair defiantly dismissed all talk of resignation yesterday amid growing signs that his political management in the run-up to the Iraq war is to be censured in this week's report by Lord Butler.

Tony Blair defiantly dismissed all talk of resignation yesterday amid growing signs that his political management in the run-up to the Iraq war is to be censured in this week's report by Lord Butler.

The former cabinet secretary told colleagues he believes the Prime Minister failed to take sufficient responsibility in the months before the invasion of Iraq, The Independent on Sunday has learnt. Lord Butler is understood to have withheld the key conclusions of his report from Downing Street to limit its ability to manipulate media coverage.

The political tension has increased with reports emerging that MI6 has now retracted the the key intelligence behind Tony Blair's claim that Iraq posed a "current and serious" threat ­ the justification for war.

A senior intelligence source is said to have told BBC1's Panorama programme that the evidence of Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons was fundamentally unreliable.

This evening's Panorama also hears from Dr Brian Jones, a retired official with the Defence Intelligence Service who says that he "couldn't relate" to Mr Blair's evidence to the Hutton inquiry.

John Morrison, former Deputy Chief of DIS, says he could "almost hear the collective raspberry going up around Whitehall" when Mr Blair told Parliament that the threat from Iraq was "serious and current".

The Prime Minister's cabinet allies are out in force this weekend, trying to crush any suggestion that he is on the point of quitting. According to today's Mail on Sunday, Mr Blair even ordered his civil servants to draw up a framework document setting out how he would handle his resignation.

It is now known that at least six cabinet ministers recently approached the Prime Minister on an individual basis, appealing to him not to step down. Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education, told the IoS he had a face-to-face conversation with Mr Blair after MPs returned from the Easter break. He said he had intended to appeal to Mr Blair not to quit, but realised "within 20 seconds" that he was determined to carry on.

He added: "There was a lot of speculation whizzing around at the time. I thought the speculation was bollocks but I decided I would go to Tony, because I very much wanted him to stay. I would never normally say that, but there was a rather frenetic atmosphere and you never quite know how people react to those situations. I wondered if there was any uncertainty in his mind about where he stood, but actually it was immediately clear that the conversation was redundant."

Four other cabinet ministers ­ John Reid, Tessa Jowell, Peter Hain and Lord Falconer ­ have approached Mr Blair to urge him to stay on. Patricia Hewitt, another of Mr Blair's cabinet allies, has written asking him to continue.

Mrs Jowell told BBC Radio 5 Live yesterday: "I don't think Tony Blair has at any time indicated that he is on the brink of resigning. He is the most successful Prime Minister of modern times."

A Downing Street spokesman pointed out that when questioned last month about whether he intended to carry on through the next election, Mr Blair had said: "I am absolutely up for it." However, there is another hurdle for the Prime Minister, with two key by-elections on Thursday in normally safe Labour seats.

Lord Butler's report is expected to be less fierce than last week's US Senate findings into the CIA's judgements about Iraq's weapons ­ which did not, however, extend to

criticising George Bush, or the White House. Lord Butler is also likely to avoid criticising Mr Blair by name, or to make any mention of his former director of communications, Alastair Campbell, but will conclude that Downing Street "dodged" its responsibility to ensure that intelligence was properly evaluated and used.

Among the evidence he has found is the minutes of a meeting in Downing Street in March 2002, which decided that the available intelligence did not justify war. Seven months later, Mr Blair told the Commons that the threat from Iraq's weaponry was "serious and current".

John Scarlett, the incoming head of MI6, and the man he replaces, Sir Richard Dearlove, both face censure, according to reports. Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, is also likely to be criticised.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown, the person most likely to inherit the crown should Mr Blair resign, had his head down as he put the finishing touches to his comprehensive spending review announced in the Commons tomorrow.

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