This time, he was grave and suitably respectful

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Indy Politics

After the Government failed to calm the media storm provoked by the BBC's claims that Downing Street "sexed up" a dossier on Iraqi weapons, Alastair Campbell wrote in his personal diary that "it was grim, it was grim for me, grim for TB [Tony Blair] and there is this huge stuff about trust".

If Mr Campbell thought yesterday was going to be another grim day as he prepared to give evidence to the Hutton inquiry, he need not have worried. In four and a half hours of questioning, he gave a calm and assured performance. Although he looked slightly nervous at the start, he quickly adapted to the different stage in Court 73. His demeanour was suitably grave, and very respectful when Lord Hutton made his occasional interventions. There were only a few flashes of the Campbell humour, none of the exuberance of his performance before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and no sign of the man who gave an intemperate interview to Channel 4 News.

On the sixth day of the Hutton inquiry, Mr Campbell was the only witness and the turnout among journalists was the highest yet. Mr Campbell has sex appeal, even if he did not "sex up" the dossier - as he repeatedly stressed yesterday. But reporters hoping that the close questioning would uncover an Achilles heel were disappointed.

All the same, there were important nuances to which Lord Hutton and his team may wish to return. Mr Blair's director of communications arrived with a slightly different story to the one he had given the Foreign Affairs Committee in June. In written evidence to the MPs, Mr Campbell said he chaired a meeting on 9 September last year "which was the planning meeting for the WMD dossier". He added that John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, first sent him a draft of the dossier on 10 September.

Before the Hutton inquiry yesterday, Mr Campbell conceded that he had also chaired an earlier meeting about the dossier on 5 September. He had little alternative, since this session was disclosed to the inquiry by the Ministry of Defence last week. Mr Campbell played down the importance of the first meeting. In effect, he argued that a decision was taken to start the process again - crucially, under the "ownership" of Mr Scarlett.

The controversial claim that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons in 45 minutes was not in the 5 September draft but appeared in the one produced five days later.

On the face of it, Mr Campbell's involvement at an earlier stage than he told the MPs does point up an inconsistency in his evidence. His personal diary for 5 September mentioned the meeting even though he did not tell the MPs of it. He told the Hutton inquiry it was agreed that the dossier "had to be revelatory, we had to show it was new and informative and part of a bigger case".

Perhaps he was at pains yesterday to stress that Mr Scarlett started again after 5 September to squash any suggestion that he was involved in beefing up the document between the two meetings. However, Mr Campbell would argue that these differences do not affect the central claim by the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan that he "sexed up" the dossier by including the "45-minute" claim against the wishes of the intelligence services.

Mr Campbell certainly gave no ammunition to his critics on that point yesterday and received a surprise boost when he was informed that his adversary Mr Gilligan had lobbied a Liberal Democrat member of the Foreign Affairs Committee to quiz David Kelly about his views on the threat posed by Iraq. Mr Campbell found that quite "extraordinary" and was undoubtedly relieved to see the spotlight switch back on to the BBC.

Lord Hutton may well apportion blame for Dr Kelly's death widely and Mr Campbell may not be immune from criticism, not least for failing to settle the bitter dispute with the BBC when there was scope for a truce. But after yesterday's grilling, he can be more hopeful that the final verdict on his battle with Mr Gilligan will not be "grim".

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