How Blairites flouted their leader's appeal for restraint

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Indy Politics

The Prime Minister's call for "respect and restraint" over the scientist David Kelly's death has been repeatedly flouted by some of Tony Blair's most loyal lieutenants.

Mr Blair made his appeal for calm on 19 July, just two days after the scientist's apparent suicide and a day after his body was discovered in a field near his home.

"I hope we can set aside the speculation and the claims and the counter-claims and allow that due process to take its proper course," Mr Blair said during an official visit to Tokyo. "In the meantime, all of us, the politicians and the media alike, should show some respect and restraint."

But just a day after the Prime Minister spoke, his close friend and ally Peter Mandelson kicked off a string of public outbursts by government ministers and Labour loyalists. Many had close links to Downing Street and all defended the government line or attacked the BBC.

Sunday 20 July: Mr Mandelson, who is unlikely to have intervened without Downing Street's knowledge, fuelled the controversy with an astonishing assault on the BBC. In an article in The Observer newspaper, Mr Mandelson, who twice stood down as a cabinet minister, claimed that the BBC was obsessed with Alastair Campbell, Downing Street's director of communications and strategy.

"It was the BBC's obsession with him [Campbell] that led more than anything to the breakdown in relations between the Government and Britain's principal public service broadcaster, with the result we have seen," he said.

His attack was backed by Gerald Kaufman, the loyalist chairman of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, who said the BBC's charter should be reviewed and the corporation placed under the supervision of the regulatory body Ofcom. "I believe the BBC has behaved deplorably and there are serious implications for its future," Mr Kaufman said.

Their assaults upped the stakes in the serious dispute between the broadcaster and Downing Street and were followed by many more.

Even retired Labour apparatchiks, including Lance Price, the Labour Party's former head of communications, who now runs a guest house in southern France, raced to the defence of the Government.

Tim Allan, who used to be Mr Campbell's deputy director of communications at Downing Street, appeared on BBC's Breakfast with Frost and on Newsnight the next day supporting No 10's line. He also appeared on Sky TV in support of the Government.

Monday 21 July: Peter Mandelson was at it again, this time on the BBC Radio 4Today programme, attacking Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the BBC, and the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, the man at the centre of the Kelly affair.

Mr Mandelson, who remains in close contact with Downing Street, said that Mr Gilligan was a "bit of a loose cannon" and urged the corporation to "activate some governing editorial mind".

His renewed foray into the public eye was followed by an intervention by other Labour heavyweights, including Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons, who is seen as a licensed public outrider by Downing Street.

There were so many No 10 loyalists popping up on the radio, television and in print that in Westminster many began to suspect that the Prime Minister's call for restraint was made for appearances' sake only, while an orchestrated campaign of spin was continuing.

Friday 25 July: In an interview with The Times, Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, weighed in with inflammatory comments that provoked a strong response from the BBC. She hinted that the BBC's charter could be under threat when it came up for renewal. She called on the BBC to prove it was "worthy" of public trust.

Sunday 27 July: Hopes of a truce after the Prime Minister's plea were shattered after an article by Mr Davies criticised the Government, reacting to Ms Jowell's remarks.

On the same day, Ms Jowell took to the airwaves again in an apparent attempt to dampen down the dispute. She claimed the BBC had circulated "scare stories" about ministers seeking revenge in the dossier row and said that the Kelly-Gilligan affair would not affect its charter renewal.

Mr Kaufman said Mr Davies had gone "over the top" in his "burst of gunfire".

Meanwhile, an ultra-loyal member of the culture committee, the Labour MP Chris Bryant, launched a bitter attack on the BBC: "The corporation's integrity was undermined when it produced an annual report two weeks ago more reminiscent of Disney than the BBC," he said. "The governors must display genuine independence, not simply back up the management at every opportunity as they have done over the Gilligan affair."

Tuesday 29 July: As the furore over the Government's decision to leak Dr Kelly's name to the press continued, Mr Hain leapt to the defence of the Government over its treatment of Dr Kelly. He argued, in a BBC interview, that the scientist's identity could not have been kept secret.

"With the media pack in full cry, the very idea that David Kelly's name could have been kept a secret is absurd," he said. "If it hadn't emerged, doubtless the media would have spun it into a cover-up story, with endless speculation on the Today programme as to why."

The "Walter Mitty" briefing by Tom Kelly, one of the Prime Minister's official spokesmen, was the latest in a long line of comments about the Kelly affair which, many believe, made a mockery of the Prime Minister's call for restraint until the full facts of the weapons scientist's death were known.