Lord Hutton's verdict on the death of the government weapons expert Dr David Kelly has been delayed by a week as the law lord finalises his long-awaited report. The findings of his inquiry were expected to be published next week but will now not appear before the week beginning 19 January.
Whitehall officials insisted there was nothing sinister about the delay, saying Lord Hutton, who worked on his report through the Christmas holiday, had never committed himself to a firm date. He stands down as a law lord on 11 January, three years before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75.
The report is eagerly awaited by the Government and the BBC, whose claims that Downing Street "sexed up" a dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in 2002 led to the events that culminated in the death of Dr Kelly last July.
The latest delay could affect the timing of the crucial Commons vote on university top-up fees. Tony Blair wants the second reading of the Higher Education Bill about two weeks after the Hutton report, so ministers can appeal to Labour MPs not to "rock the boat" at a time when the Government is on the defensive. The vote could now slip to next month.
The BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, vigorously defended his organisation in the Financial Times, saying the report by Andrew Gilligan that led to the controversy was "a legitimate story". "We believe [that] in protesting about parts of the story, the Number 10 press office attacked the whole integrity of people in this organisation ... that was an aberration."
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said he believed Mr Blair would not be forced to resign over the Hutton report, but served notice that, if Lord Hutton did not pass judgement on the Government's use of intelligence on Iraqi weapons in the run-up to war, he would demand a larger judicial inquiry into the handling of the conflict.
"I think that probably the Prime Minister will emerge from the outcome of the Hutton inquiry still in his position, but I think that his political credibility will be damaged as a result of that and other things," he said. "I think the argument will be re-engaged about a proper independent inquiry about why on earth we ever got into the war on that basis."