He will survive Butler, but can he ever regain our trust?

The more he justifies his decision to go to war, the less the public trusts him. Braced for criticism from an inquiry he has every reason to dread, the Prime Minister, for all the clamour, has little to fear - even from his rivals and enemies
Click to follow
Indy Politics

It has become a commonplace of British politics: Tony Blair has a problem of trust.

The more the Prime Minister justifies his decision to go to war in Iraq, the less the public seems to believe him. His explanations have veered from the certainty that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which posed a "current and serious" threat to Britain - which is what he said when presenting the September 2002 Iraq dossier to Parliament - to the assertion that even if the intelligence was wrong, it was right to invade Iraq to rid the world of an evil despot.

But whatever he says, the public doesn't buy it. Mr Blair's attempts to draw a line and move on to domestic subjects with which he is more comfortable, such as health and education, have been constantly frustrated. He has sought to deal with the trust problem by saying that he respects the motives of critics such as Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, who disagree with his decision to go to war - but he insists that they should do the same for him. That is a long way short of the apology that many are demanding.

Nor does the coming week offer any respite. The Senate intelligence committee in the US has just issued a damning report on the failings of the CIA in Iraq which in passing accuses other intelligence agencies, including Britain's, of similar errors. On Wednesday, Lord Butler, appointed by the Prime Minister to examine the same issues, will report on the findings of his committee. While the Senate committee, for party political reasons, did not explore the dealings between the intelligence agencies and the politicians, the Butler committee, according to all the reports, will do just that.

And next weekend sees the anniversary of the death of Dr David Kelly, whose suicide brought a dimension of human tragedy to what might otherwise have been an arid dispute over biology and missile ranges. Certainly Mr Blair will not want to be reminded of last summer, when doubts over the Government's WMD case were suddenly turned into the subject of pub and dinner party conversation, first by the titanic row between Downing Street and the BBC, then by Dr Kelly's disappearance and death, and finally by the Hutton inquiry

Through August and September, the inner workings of government were laid bare by evidence to the inquiry, with notes and memos which would normally remain secret for 30 years being made public within weeks of their creation. The picture revealed was not flattering to the BBC, the intelligence services, Downing Street or the Prime Minister himself.

By January, when Lord Hutton completely exonerated Mr Blair of any wrongdoing in connection with Dr Kelly, the two men at the top of the BBC had stepped down, as had their principal antagonist at No 10, Alastair Campbell. Also gone was Andrew Gilligan, the BBC reporter who had used Dr Kelly as his source. But did this get the Prime Minister off the hook? Not at all.

The fuss over whether the Hutton report was a whitewash might eventually have died down, At almost the same moment, however, the whole WMD issue belatedly erupted in the US. The American public had been largely impervious to the controversy in Britain, but when the head of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay, announced that he had found no weapons stockpiles and told the Senate, "It turns out we were all wrong", notice was suddenly taken.

In an election year, President George Bush had to react. He set up an inquiry into the intelligence on which the US and Britain had gone to war, and Mr Blair - not for the first time - was forced to follow suit. All arguments that Hutton had settled the issue were abandoned. The inquiry the Prime Minister never wanted will present its findings in three days' time.

Even if Lord Butler presides over a whitewash as comprehensive as Lord Hutton's, however - and the former cabinet secretary is said to be determined to avoid such a perception - it will make curiously little difference to Mr Blair's position. There is a disjuncture between what might be called street politics and life in Westminster; public distrust on Iraq does not translate into obstruction in the Cabinet or the civil service, and the political class is as preoccupied with the two by-elections to be held on Thursday as they are with Lord Butler's findings on Wednesday.

Lord Butler can hardly avoid concluding that Tony Blair took the country into war with Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence. He is also expected to criticise the procedures by which decisions are reached in Downing Street - yet despite all the buzz about Tony Blair's future, nobody of real influence in Westminster wants or expects his job to be on the line.

The Cabinet Blairistas do not want him damaged, and are running a very visible operation to shore him up. Tessa Jowell, John Reid and Charles Clarke will be on the airwaves today, all hammering out the same message that the Prime Minister is fighting fit and here to stay. Although the Tories gain to some extent from a fall in Tony Blair's personal standing, Iraq is not a good issue for them either, because they supported the war.

Even Gordon Brown and his circle, who would be the first to collect the prize if Mr Blair vacated Downing Street, do not want a political crisis to erupt this week. They know that if he thinks he is being driven into a corner, it is likely to reinforce the Prime Minister's determination to tough it out. One figure close to Mr Brown said: "We want him to get through Butler, get through the by-elections and everything else so that he can go on holiday and think about what he wants to do."

"Getting through" Butler will depend on what the report says. Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, a former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, says the buck must stop with Mr Blair himself, and implies that the author of the WMD dossier and former head of the JIC, John Scarlett, appointed head of MI6 by the Prime Minister, might have to stand down if that is what is needed to "restore confidence" in the intelligence services.

Few others have gone so far, however. The Prime Minister hopes that the response to Butler can be restricted to administrative changes in the intelligence agencies and the civil service, along with some kind of expression of contrition along the lines of: "I am sorry the intelligence was wrong, but the decision to go to war was still right."

His dilemma is that while this might satisfy the Westminster village, it will not regain him public trust. That would require, if not an admission that it was wrong to go to war, at least a promise that Britain will never go to war again on such flimsy grounds. But among the political class this would be tantamount to standing down and handing over to Mr Brown. Whatever the hopes in the Brown camp that he will be contemplating this during his summer holiday, it remains the least likely scenario.

Which brings us back to the problem of trust. In this respect Mr Blair is exactly where he was a year ago. And ever since he put his fate in the hands of President Bush, his influence over the Iraq issue has been compromised.

Leading article, page 24; John Rentoul, page 24


Gavyn Davies, 53, resigned as chairman of the BBC after criticism of the corporation in Lord Hutton's report on the death of Dr David Kelly.

When Mr Davies took up the post in 2001, there were concerns that his New Labour links might jeopardise his independence. But he stood shoulder to shoulder with the director-general, Greg Dyke, in defending the BBC.

"I have been brought up to believe that the referee's decision is final," he said on his departure in January. This week, however, Mr Davies said he found Lord Hutton's findings "inexplicable", and accused the Government of conducting a witch-hunt.

Before the Hutton inquiry, John Scarlett was as anonymous as a spy ought to be, aside from tales of derring-do as MI6 chief in Moscow in the early 1990s.

Mr Scarlett's involvement in the September 2002 dossier on Iraq's WMD brought him into the public eye like no other chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Despite Lord Hutton's finding that he might "subconsciously" have been influenced by Downing Street in his writing of the dossier, Tony Blair appointed him head of MI6. He takes over this month, but critics question whether he should keep the job if he is criticised by Butler.

After a torrid appearance at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Andrew Gilligan was roundly censured in the Hutton report, which found no evidence that the dossier on Iraq had been "sexed up".

Mr Gilligan left the BBC and for a time it appeared his career might falter. A post at The Spectator as well as a contract for the Evening Standard have confounded those who hoped he would never work in the media again.

Although reluctant to write on the Kelly affair since his departure from the BBC, he is expected to return to the fray when the Butler report comes out. Plans for a book are still in the pipeline, but a return to broadcasting is unlikely.

Last autumn, Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence, was favourite to become the main political casualty of the Hutton inquiry. What appeared to finish him off was evidence from his political adviser, Richard Taylor, about a meeting with Mr Hoon before Dr Kelly's death, in which they had discussed what to do if the scientist's name was leaked to the press. This seemed to contradict Mr Hoon's denial that he played any part in making Dr Kelly's name public.

But Lord Hutton concluded he was not untruthful. Mr Hoon may well move jobs in a reshuffle this month, but at this distance it will not be seen to be a result of the Kelly affair.

A year ago, Alastair Campbell was the second most powerful man in the country, at a time when, more than ever, information is power.

As No 10's director of communications and strategy, his authority derived from his closeness to Mr Blair. Now he has resumed the career of public performer he abandoned 10 years ago. His Evening with Alastair Campbell shows draw good audiences; he writes on sport for The Times; and he has become a TV interviewer on Channel 5, with a guest line-up that includes Bill Clinton. His future is assured by the eye-watering value of his as-yet-unpublished diaries.

Amid the millions of words about the David Kelly affair, the near-total silence of his widow, Janice, has been remarkable.

Mrs Kelly, 59, has declined all requests for interviews, in spite of offers estimated at up to £750,000. Her one public revelation was to tell the Hutton inquiry that her husband had felt "let down" by the Government. She also wrote in the newsletter of her local history society of the "nightmare" she and her family had been through. She is understood to have recently moved out of the house that the couple shared in the village of Southmoor, Oxfordshire, but remains living quietly nearby.