How Blair hit turbulence and landed in a storm

The PM was entitled to his celebratory glass of red wine on his flight to Tokyo. In a single day he'd wowed Congress, seen off the BBC, played tough with Bush. Now he was ready to deliver front page-making news on the euro. Then his Boeing 777 hit rough weather and the satphone rang ... Andy McSmith and Donald Macintyre report

The ancients believed that rough weather represented the anger of the Gods. The Japanese word "kamikaze" - literally "divine wind" - refers to a sudden storm which sweeps your enemies away. In other cultures, fearsome weather is a portent of disaster rather than victory.

On Thursday night, as Tony Blair slept fitfully aboard a Boeing 777 bound from Washington to Tokyo, he was rocked by turbulence which one of the BA stewardesses described as the worst she had ever experienced. Had the Prime Minister been a superstitious man, he might have seen this as warning that political events - which had gone so well throughout that day - were about to take a new and terrible turn.

It should have been a weekend of crowning success for Mr Blair. As he left Washington, he had every reason to think that his government had finally turned a corner, and that an extremely difficult parliamentary term had ended on a high note.

After his triumphal speech to the houses of Congress, with its 17 standing ovations, the Prime Minister had a 20-minute meeting with President Bush, and a group of senior officials including Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice in the Oval Office before a joint press conference and dinner with the President.

At this meeting, Mr Blair apparently extracted from the Americans an agreement to suspend proceedings against two British prisoners held by the US military in Guantanamo Bay. Although this is only a holding position, it was a very welcome concession which spared Mr Blair from a rising wave of protest in the UK.

After he boarded his Boeing 777 in bright Washington sunshine, Mr Blair will have been told of yet more good news from home. There was the wholly unexpected defeat of Mick Rix, who was standing for re-election as leader of the train drivers' union, Aslef. Mr Rix was regarded in Downing Street as the most dangerous of the new breed of "awkward squad" union leaders, and this was the first significant union election in five years in which the winner was the candidate who was identifiably pro-Blair.

More importantly, the foreign affairs committee had come out with an extraordinary attack on the BBC defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, branding him an "unsatisfactory witness". To Mr Blair's advisers, that was a major advance in their campaign to reclaim public trust by disposing of the BBC's allegation that they had doctored intelligence reports to buttress the case for war in Iraq.

So in one day, Mr Blair appeared to have defeated the BBC, improved relations with the unions, proved that he was not a "poodle" of the American President and shown off his stature as a world figure. Unsurprisingly, his entourage enjoyed a celebratory drink aboard the plane - Blair had red wine - and talked over the day for about an hour before most of the party, Blair included, went to get some sleep.

But at around 7am London time, after that kamikaze had rattled his aircraft, the Prime Minister was given the terrible news that David Kelly was missing. The message came from No 10 to the travelling duty clerk using a special secure phone - a black box with a suction cap fixed to the window in order to receive a clear satellite signal. Mr Blair's reaction, according to one official, was one of "shock".

In the hectic series of phone calls, both on the secure phone and on the British Airways satellite phones which followed, he spoke - twice - to Sir Kevin Tebbit, the Permanent Under Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, Mr Kelly's ultimate boss and now clearly a pivotal figure in the drama.

He also spoke to Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence and the man with overall responsibility for the several days of interrogation of Dr Kelly which followed his admission that he had spoken to the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan. And Mr Blair talked to several other people, certainly including - even though No 10 would not confirm this yesterday - Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, both of whom he had allowed to go home after the Washington leg of the trip.

In Tokyo, the Prime Minister looked strained and gaunt. Whether deliberately or not, he chose a moment when no reporters were present - only a Sky TV camera crew - to make what he intended to be his sole and definitive statement on the tragedy. "I am profoundly sad for David Kelly and his family," he said. "He was a fine public servant. He did immense service for his country and I am sure he would have done so in the future. There is now however going to be a due process and a proper independent inquiry. I believe that it should be allowed to establish the facts. We should set aside speculation, claims and counter-claims and allow that due process to take its proper course; and, in the meantime, all of us, politicians and media alike, should show some restraint and respect. That's all I'm going to say."

In London, his Downing Street staff were equally constrained, conscious of the real possibility that Mr Campbell could lose his job in the fall-out from Dr Kelly's death. Privately, they are hoping that Lord Hutton will extend his inquiry to look into whether the BBC, and the journalists who besieged Dr Kelly's Oxfordshire home, contributed to his state of mind.

Meanwhile, if Mr Blair was hoping for "restraint and respect" from British journalists at his press conference with Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese Prime Minister, at the spa resort of Hakone later in the day, that hope was put to bed by a Mail on Sunday reporter who shouted at him: "Have you got blood on your hands, Prime Minister? Are you going to resign?"

Ironically, in any other circumstances but these, the speech he went on to give in the New Otani's Tachibana Room would have been front-page news. In an attempt to persuade putative Japanese investors put off by prevarication over the single currency, the Prime Minister went the furthest he has yet gone in talking up the prospects of British euro-entry.

For the first time he said unequivocally of the measures outlined in the Chancellor's June euro statement to secure greater convergence: "We are not looking for completion of the impact of reform in all areas for recommending entry."

He backed up this thinly coded - and, to many, incredible - message that entry could happen, if not in this parliament, very shortly after the next election, with the most bullish statement of the benefits of the single currency he has ever given. The "magic of compound arithmetic", he declared, meant that after 30 years the annual benefit to the UK of euro-entry would be between 5 and 9 per cent of GDP - the equivalent of what Britain now spends on health care, or on pensions and education combined.

And on the problem of volatility in the housing market - cited among many sceptics on euro-entry, the Chancellor included - as a reason for caution, he said pointedly that the very latest figures showed that more than 50 per cent of new housing loans were now fixed-rate mortgages - by implication removing yet another barrier to euro-entry.

But his delivery was flat, and the applause decidedly perfunctory. Oddly, he skipped one especially effective passage in the written speech where he castigated opponents of euro-entry for saying that we should "distance ourselves from the European market because of the perceived rigidities of our trading partners".

The passage added: "This is a strange way of casting the national interest; since when did a successful businessman withdraw from a market because he feared that his rivals would not compete?" This was especially significant in that the Chancellor - at least before his June speech - had himself made much of European rigidities as a reason for not yet joining the euro.

And Mr Blair did say the words that followed in the text: "Provided there is sufficient convergence and flexibility between the UK and the eurozone we could enjoy a period of superior growth because of our superior flexibility - not the greatest disaster that can befall a nation."

As the Blairs' hectic programme continued, it was not quite the "business as usual" proclaimed by his aides. Yes, he went with his wife to open Tokyo's new Pizza Express restaurant. But, no, he did not, as planned, design his own "celebrity pizza" to be auctioned for charity. That would have been a photo-opportunity too far.

There was also an unscripted exchange with Carlos Ghosn, the very pro-euro head of Nissan, during a private meeting with Japan's leading motor manufacturers. Mr Blair told him "I need to look after you because you are so important to my constituents." As he was leaving, Mr Ghosn replied meaningfully, "I hope you are Prime Minister for a very long time", adding that he would be much less keen to have one "who produced 1,700-page reports on the euro". Blair replied briefly that he hoped he would be around for a long time too.

It is hard to imagine an exchange that went more closely to the heart of the political crisis Blair now faces, for it has never looked more likely that Brown's time could be near.

Last night, the Blairs were staying at the Prince Hotel in Prime Minister Koizumi's favourite hill resort of Hakone. Sited on the banks of Lake Ashi with spectacular views, on a clear day - which yesterday, ominously, was not - of Mount Fuji, it would in other circumstances be the perfect resting place. The Blairs were not expected to immerse themselves in the onsen - the resort's three hot-spring baths.

But there would be plenty of time to consider many of the questions it will now be Lord Hutton's job to answer - like whether it was wise to prolong the row with the BBC by dragging in David Kelly. And it would provide time to contemplate one of Mr Koizumi's favourite sayings of Confucius: "If the people have no faith in their leaders, they cannot stand."

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