The matter of David Kelly took up just five minutes and 11 seconds of Prime Minister's Questions yesterday. But no one who saw and heard what happened was left in any doubt that they had witnessed a pivotal moment.
Afterwards, the Conservatives were exultantly claiming their strategy had worked. Tony Blair was edgy, strained and uncomfortable. Michael Howard had put Tony Blair where he least wanted to be - centre stage in the Kelly affair.
Even less partisan observers agreed that Mr Blair was very much on the defensive as he faced a well-prepared and hostile barrage from the Opposition leader over his precise part in the exposure of Dr Kelly's identity.
Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, is seen as the most likely casualty when Lord Hutton's report comes out later this month. But Mr Howard has privately stated he was after a bigger scalp. Soon after taking over as party leader he set up a team to examine the Prime Minister's role in the matter. The aim was to keep the spotlight on him as much as possible. If Mr Blair is shown to have misled Parliament, Tory MPs point out, it would be a matter for resignation.
The pattern of techniques the Prime Minister used to deflect the accusations has become familiar, involving almost legalese use of language. The word of the day was "totality". He used it three times in answer to five questions. He stood by the "totality" of what he has said at various stages about the naming of the scientist. The use of "totality" could mean he stands by every statement. Or, more likely, that he stands by the overall thrust of his position rather than each specific remark. Mr Blair is hoping that the listener confuses the two.
As is known, there are apparent contradictions between the Prime Minister's version of events and that given to Lord Hutton by Sir Kevin Tebbit, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence.
Sir Kevin said the strategy that led to Dr Kelly's identity being disclosed was formulated at a meeting in Downing Street on 8 July last year, chaired by the Prime Minister. The decision was taken to issue a press release, giving extensive details about Dr Kelly without actually naming him, and, at the same time, authorising the press office at the MoD to confirm the name to journalists if they came up with it.
Sir Kevin said that, until then, he and his Whitehall colleagues had not thought anything useful would be gained by disclosing the scientist's identity. The "change of stance", he said, took place at the Downing Street meeting at which no one from the MoD was present.
Examining the totality of the Prime Minister's statements shows his likely defence when the Hutton report comes out - that he did not authorise the naming of Dr Kelly by the MoD press office, but confirmed it.
Mr Blair was on a flight over China on 22 July after the news had broken of Dr Kelly's death.
He was asked: "Why did you authorise the naming of David Kelly?" Mr Blair said: "That is completely untrue ... I believe that we have acted properly throughout ... Did I authorise the leaking of David Kelly's name? That is completely untrue ..." When asked whether he authorised anyone in Downing Street, or in the MoD, to release David Kelly's name, Mr Blair replied: "Emphatically not. I did not authorise the leaking of the name of David Kelly ... Nobody was authorised to name David Kelly." When it was pointed out the MoD had confirmed the name of David Kelly to journalists, Mr Blair said: "Look, that was a completely different matter once the name was out there ..." This last sentence is likely to become of crucial importance. It was being repeatedly intoned by Labour officials to journalists in briefings last night. The MoD press office had confirmed Dr Kelly's name, but not named him, they insisted.
Giving evidence to Lord Hutton, Mr Blair admitted that he had telephoned Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, to tell him that the source for the reporter Andrew Gilligan's story had come forward, without actually naming Dr Kelly. This was the first time anyone in Whitehall, civil servants or ministers, had mentioned the scientist to an outside party. Under questioning from Lord Hutton and James Dingemans, counsel for the inquiry, Mr Blair repeatedly stated that the main concern was that the Government would be accused of covering up the fact that the scientist had come forward, and that the matter was directly relevant to an inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
Not a glove was laid on Mr Blair during his Hutton evidence. Unlike the Prime Minister's former official spokesman Alastair Campbell and Mr Hoon, he was not called back for cross-examination. In the Commons, the Tories under Iain Duncan Smith made little headway in tackling him on the subject. Yesterday showed that all that has changed.
THE KEY QUOTES
Tony Blair, 22 July 2003, giving a briefing to journalists on a plane to Hong Kong several days after David Kelly's death:
Q: Why did you authorise the naming of David Kelly?
A: That is completely untrue ...
Q: But are you saying ... authorised by you or by any of your staff, or by the Secretary of State for Defence to actually name David Kelly? Is that your starting point going into the inquiry?
A: My starting point going into the inquiry is that I believe we have acted properly throughout ... In reply to what was said earlier, did I authorise the leaking of David Kelly's name? That's completely untrue.
Q: Did you authorise anyone in Downing Street, or in the MoD, to release David Kelly's name?
A: Emphatically not. I did not authorise the leaking of the name of David Kelly.
Q: We know that the Ministry of Defence did confirm the identity of David Kelly.
A: That was a completely different matter once the name was out there.
Tony Blair, 28 August 2003, giving evidence to the Hutton inquiry:
Asked whether he had seen the press statement revealing a source had come forward, he said: "I may have scanned my eye over it myself but I cannot absolutely recall that."
Asked whether he was aware of the existence of the MoD's Q and A material, confirming the identity of Dr Kelly, he replied: "I was not, but I, you know, would have thought it perfectly natural that the MoD had to prepare to field inquiries ... by then the MoD and all of us were in quite a difficult position. We did not want to keep this information quiet.
"The view... was that... we cannot conceal this information... We were quite clear the name was going to come out in one way or another.
"In the end I have full responsibility for the decisions that are taken... Responsibility is mine in the end. I take the decisions as Prime Minister.
"We handled this by the book, in the sense of with the advice of senior civil servants. Not, as I say, in order to pass responsibility to them but in order to make sure that this was not, as it were, the politicians driving the system but us taking a consensus view about what was the right way to proceed."
"I think the basic view would have been not to offer the name but, on the other hand, not to mislead people.
"The trouble was it was fairly obvious the name was going to come out. The most that you were doing with the public statement was a getting a short breathing space."
Sir Kevin Tebbit, 13 October 2003, giving evidence to the Hutton inquiry:
"The change of stance, as you put it, was as a result of the meeting chaired by the Prime Minister [on 8 July] ... The decision was taken at the meeting in No 10 with which the MoD concurred."
Sir Kevin denied a claim made by Alastair Campbell in his diaries that he and Sir David Omand, No 10's security coordinator, had been parties to a discussion on how the scientist's name could be leaked. "I understand that Alastair Campbell has a very racy diary style, but this was never passed on to us."
Sir Kevin also denied another claim in the diaries that he had described Dr Kelly to Mr Campbell as "a show-off". Sir Kevin said: "No, I do not believe I had used those words."Reuse content