Ministers' plans to present their version of events in the Kelly affair were in turmoil last night, six days before the Hutton inquiry opens into the death of the weapons scientist.
The Government has abandoned its intention to attack the credibility of David Kelly after the furore caused by The Independent's revelation that Tom Kelly, Tony Blair's official spokesman, denigrated him as a "Walter Mitty".
As Downing Street apologised to Dr Kelly's family, Whitehall sources acknowledged its plans were in disarray. A source said: "This policy of demeaning a dead man was never going to work. In a way, Downing Street should be thankful that this has been lanced, and personalised with Tom Kelly. The alternative of this strategy being carried into Hutton would have been pretty disastrous."
Dr Kelly's widow, Janice, and their daughters are "deeply saddened and upset" by the slur, a family friend said. But, he added, Mrs Kelly did not want to get involved in a slanging match in the days before her husband's funeral. "She and the family want to maintain their dignity even if others don't," he said. "But they are of course very hurt by that comment."
Alastair Hay, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, who knew Dr Kelly, said: "This was appalling behaviour by the Government, and obviously very distressing to the family.
"My own wife committed suicide last September after suffering from clinical depression, and, to a certain extent, I can understand how they feel. The Government would never have succeeded in trying to diminish Dr Kelly's importance. Too many people, including myself, knew his true worth."
The Government's decision to shift the focus of attack from Andrew Gilligan, the BBC defence correspondent, to Dr Kelly, came after No 10 learned that another BBC journalist, Susan Watts of Newsnight, had a tape in which Dr Kelly mentioned the involvement of Alastair Campbell in last September's Iraq dossier, according to senior sources.
This meant, in effect, that Mr Gilligan could defend himself against the accusation that he "sexed up" what Dr Kelly had told him by inserting the name of Mr Campbell, Mr Blair's director of communications.
The decision was then taken to stress that even if Dr Kelly had told Mr Gilligan what he claimed, it would not matter because the scientist was not senior enough to have adequate knowledge about the dossier, which contained the claim that Saddam Hussein could unleash weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes.
There was serious opposition within Whitehall, especially the Ministry of Defence, to the strategy of trying to undermine Dr Kelly by branding him a fantasist. Critics said such an attack would backfire with eminent experts appearing at the inquiry to back Dr Kelly's reputation as Britain's foremost authority on chemical and biological warfare.
Whitehall sources acknowledged the Government was having difficulties persuading its officials to openly criticise Dr Kelly before the inquiry. It now appears the Government will present its own version of events, including its view on Dr Kelly's seniority, in a "sober and unsensational fashion".Reuse content