PM assumes 'full responsibility'. But still he dodges full disclosure

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Indy Politics

It was a typically calm, polished and assured performance. But Tony Blair's appearance before the Hutton inquiry left many contradictions and questions unanswered.

In sharp contrast to Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, who tried to wash his hands of direct involvement in the handling of David Kelly, the Prime Minister took "full responsibility" for what he insisted were the right decisions. Perhaps Mr Hoon's testimony the previous day left him with little choice. Equally, Mr Blair knew that the long trail of e-mails and memos disclosed to the inquiry already led to his door.

After Dr Kelly's death, Mr Blair told journalists on his trip to the Far East: "I did not authorise the leaking of the name of David Kelly." Yesterday, he took a different line. He admitted that those taking the decisions on Dr Kelly - including himself - believed it was inevitable that his identity would become known.

"We were quite clear the name was going to come out in one way or another," Mr Blair said. And yet he failed to explain why they approved a process that allowed Dr Kelly's name to "dribble out", even though they were not absolutely sure he was the source of the BBC's report claiming that Downing Street had "sexed up" a dossier on Iraqi weapons.

The other chink in Mr Blair's armour is the Government's attempts to use two parliamentary committees to further its bitter dispute with the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan. The Prime Minister dodged several questions on this yesterday and looked uncomfortable, as well he might.

There is growing evidence that the Government tried to manipulate the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FAC) and Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). Yesterday, a damaging e-mail emerged in which Godric Smith, one of Mr Blair's official spokesmen, appeared to draft a statement that the FAC could issue when deciding to reopen its inquiry by summoning Dr Kelly, Mr Gilligan and Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of news. Although it seems the e-mail was not acted upon, its existence reveals the mindset in No 10; the two committees were seen as a tool in the power struggle with the BBC.

Mr Hoon restricted the FAC's questioning of Dr Kelly to Mr Gilligan's evidence, so that he could not be asked for his expert view on Saddam Hussein's alleged arsenal. (Mr Blair, too, fretted about this, knowing that Dr Kelly was sceptical on the Government's claim that Iraq could deploy any chemical and biological weapons in 45 minutes.)

The Government's treatment of the ISC, which is appointed by and reports to Mr Blair rather than Parliament, has been even more cavalier. Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's director of communications, sent a revealing e-mail, saying: "If the BBC source situation develops as it might, surely it is in our interest for the ISC to delve deeply into this, by interviewing the source [Dr Kelly], and Gilligan and myself, and for all of us putting over our concerns about the damage this could do to the integrity of the intelligence services."

Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's chief of staff, replied: "We should certainly get them [the ISC] to interview Gilligan and source, and best if you get them to give evidence after both of them." The language is instructive. Here we have Mr Blair's two most senior aides discussing - in private, or so they thought - discussing how to "get" a supposedly independent committee to prosecute their dispute.

Ann Taylor, the ISC chairwoman, told the Hutton inquiry on Wednesday that Downing Street wanted to disclose in an an open letter to her committee that an unnamed government scientist had admitted meeting Mr Gilligan. To her credit she was having none of it, so a press statement was issued by the MoD instead.

Why does the attempt to exploit the two committees matter? Because they are supposed to hold the Government to account. Their role is even more vital when the governing party has a big majority or when we have a "presidential" Prime Minister. The Prime Minister enjoys a Commons majority and the committees are not powerful. This imbalance should be corrected.

Mr Blair professed concern that the Government would be accused of a "cover up" if the information that a scientist had come forward was withheld from the FAC. This does not hold water. I don't recall the Blair Government volunteering information to the press or public during the Bernie Ecclestone, "Mittalgate" and "Cheriegate" affairs. Mr Blair is trying to have it both ways.