John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, ordered ministers and officials to show respect and decency towards the family of David Kelly last night after a Whitehall source described him as a "Walter Mitty" character.
Downing Street engaged in a frantic damage-limitation exercise as colleagues of Dr Kelly accused the Government of sinking to a new low so close to his funeral tomorrow, and said his family was hurt and appalled at the attempt to portray him as a fantasist.
The Independent revealed yesterday that a Whitehall official believed Dr Kelly had misled the Ministry of Defence and the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan over claims that a dossier issued last September to justify war in Iraq had been "sexed up".
Mr Prescott made clear that he did not believe Dr Kelly's reputation merited the Walter Mitty description, and he ordered Sir Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary, to instruct staff to show respect.
Mr Prescott said: "I trust that no one in Government would comment on Dr Kelly at such a sensitive time, before the funeral and while the Hutton inquiry [into Dr Kelly's death] is under way. I have emphasised this point to the Cabinet Secretary."
Mr Prescott's statement came after a day of conflicting comments from Downing Street. At the start of the day, Downing Street officials insisted such a comment would not have been made.
But by last night, officials in effect confirmed the comment had been made when the Prime Minister's spokeswoman said: "It was not intended as an official briefing, nor does it reflect the Government's view, which is that only the Hutton inquiry can answer those questions."
Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, who was sent an e-mail by Dr Kelly the day he died, told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "I thought the Prime Minister was calling for some decency and for people to hold off. The fact that there seems to be some attempt to undermine Dr Kelly, who is not in a position to defend himself, is incredible.
"But I also find the claims about Dr Kelly staggering. It's certainly not the man I knew."
Richard Butler, the Australian who led the United Nations weapons inspection team in Iraq that included Dr Kelly, also said the description of him as a fantasist was wholly inaccurate.
"This was a man who was welded to the truth and had a deep experience in Iraq," Mr Butler told the programme. "He was an expert in biology and biological weapons. Any attempt to paint him in other colours, I think, is distasteful. That is not a description of David Kelly as I knew him."Reuse content