The Government is to announce "shortly" whether it is to follow the White House and order an inquiry into why no weapons of mass destruction have yet been found in Iraq, Downing Street announced today.
The news came just hours before the confirmation from America that President George Bush is to set up an inquiry into intelligence on Iraqi arms. It is not expected to report before the presidential elections in November.
The Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott refused to be drawn on a UK inquiry, saying: "We don't follow in the footsteps of President Bush, no matter what you may think.
"We make our own decisions about this. We will make our own judgements in the way we feel is necessary. I think you will have to wait and see if any decisions in these areas need to be taken.
Tony Blair and senior ministers have so far ruled out any inquiry into the apparent intelligence failings in the run-up to the war with Iraq.
But the Prime Minister's spokesman, speaking after the White House let it be known that President George Bush would be ordering a commission of inquiry into the affair, said Number 10 had been in close touch with Washington.
The spokesman said: "What's different between last week and this is that the Hutton report, like the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee report and like the Intelligence and Security Committee report, has cleared the Government of allegations of having politically interfered with, falsified or hyped the intelligence on WMD.
"That allows us to address - hopefully in a more rational way, a more rational context - the perfectly valid question that people have asked about WMD.
"And while the Iraq Survey Group's former head David Kay's interim report did find evidence of programmes of WMD and did find evidence of concealment, it's equally true, as the Prime Minister acknowledged a week ago, that we have yet to find WMD weapons in Iraq and we recognise these are valid questions.
"We have also been talking to the American administration and keeping in close touch with them and they are coming close to announcing how they are going to approach this issue.
"In the same way, we are coming close to announcing how we will approach these questions but we will want first of all to make that announcement to Parliament.
"I can't tell you whether it's going to be today or later than that."
Asked whether Mr Blair would announce an inquiry similar to the one ordered by the White House - made up of experts and senior politicians across the political divide - the spokesman replied: "I'm not going to get drawn on the content. We will announce shortly the way we are going to do it.
"There are a number of different ways in which it could be announced to Parliament. We will have to see how the timetable goes. We are aware there are a number of parliamentary occasions this week coming up."
Downing Street may be waiting for President Bush to announce formally his intention to set up his commission before making its own announcement.
Tory leader Michael Howard and Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy have both called for an independent inquiry into the coalition intelligence on Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons arsenal.
Mr Howard told GMTV: "I hope that Tony Blair won't continue to be the odd man out on this.
"Everybody now recognises that something went wrong over the intelligence and it is very interesting that it looks as though President Bush is going to hold an inquiry. I think we do need one here."
Mr Howard said both he and Mr Kennedy should be consulted on the terms of any inquiry set up by Number 10.
* The failure to find Iraq's weapons of mass destruction is undermining the credibility of Britain and the United States in the war against international terrorism, MPs warned today.
The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said British and US forces in Iraq were now facing "a dangerous alliance of foreign fighters with terrorist allegiances and elements of the former Iraqi regime".
In a report on the war against terrorism, it said that the military action in Iraq may have made terrorist attacks against British interests and British nationals more likely in the short term.
But while the committee said that a successful handover of power to the Iraqis would lessen the terrorist threat, it warned against any scaling back of coalition forces until the Iraqis were able to ensure security themselves.Reuse content