Tony Blair will face a barrage of hostile questions in Parliament next week on the failure of coalition forces to uncover the weapons of mass destruction that formed the legal basis for war on Iraq.
Senior MPs joined the clamour for Mr Blair to make an emergency statement on the affair when MPs return to Westminster next week, amid claims that he might have misled Parliament by exaggerating Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological arsenal in the run-up to the invasion.
Lord King of Bridgwater, former chairman of the Security and Intelligence Committee, and a former defence secretary, said there was a case for an inquiry into the Government's claims that Iraqi weapons could be deployed "within 45 minutes". Senior Liberal Democrats are thought to be discussing whether to force ministers to the Commons to answer questions or even devote to the controversy part of their Opposition Day debate on Wednesday.
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "These are very serious allegations and if they are true then they would substantially undermine the Government's legal and political case for going to war.
"Throughout the crisis government ministers went out of their way to say they intended to act in accordance with international law and justified their action on the basis that the threat from Saddam Hussein was both substantial and imminent.
"If the 45-minute factor had been taken out of the equation the Government would have found it much more difficult to argue its case."
He added: "If this truly was an embellishment by Number 10, it turned intelligence into propaganda. This may well be a case for a special select committee investigation in view of the significance of these claims."
Lord King said: "There are worries being raised at the moment and there could be a case at a later stage, certainly not now, for looking at these matters."
The Security and Intelligence Committee refused to confirm or deny whether it would launch an inquiry into the affair. Any inquiry would be conducted in secret, and any report vetted before publication. There is little MPs can do to force censure on Mr Blair. Sustained pressure on the Government over the issue, does, though, have the potential to inflict political damage. MPs said yesterday nothing less than a statement by the Prime Minister would kill doubts over the legal basis for war.
Doug Henderson, a former armed forces minister, said: "Donald Rumsfeld's comments change the agenda and no one will believe anything that is said until there is a statement. The Prime Minister should make a statement to Parliament on Tuesday to tell MPs and the nation what were the reasons for going to war. If he doesn't do that there will a feeling that there is a cover-up and ultimately he will be forced to make a statement."
Alice Mahon, Labour MP for Halifax, and another critic of the war, said: "This is a very serious matter because whereas I might have been against the war from the outset a considerable number of MPs were persuaded that there was a threat directed against this country. It's very, very serious if Parliament was misled because intelligence was wrong or because someone made the intelligence a bit more scary."
Chris Smith, a former culture secretary, said: "I think it's very important that the issue of weapons of mass destruction is discussed in the House because we were constantly assured this was the principal reason for going to war. I'm completely sure that there was no deliberate attempt to mislead on the Prime Minister's part, but I think it would be helpful for everyone for us to have a proper discussion and debate about the reasons for taking military action and lessons to be learnt in the light of what has since happened."
Tony Lloyd, a former Foreign Office minister, added: "There will be pressure for a statement. Many people in the country, including members of Parliament, were prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt because of the charges about weapons of mass destruction."
Tam Dalyell, the father of the House, said: "The Prime Minister must now come to the Commons and give an explanation of the claims that the dossier he produced with such a fanfare was altered, against the wishes of the Joint Intelligence Committee, by Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, and his team."
Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister, has won the backing of 72 MPs for a motion demanding that the Government provide evidence for its claims on Iraqi weapons and has threatened to report Mr Blair to the Speaker for misleading Parliament. He said: "So far, we have got no grounds for believing that any of this evidence is reliable in any shape or form.
"Why do Government ministers continue to make these assertions when there is no evidence on the ground and the evidence they have provided hitherto has been shown to be suspect?"
But Bruce George, chairman of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said: "I'm sure the stuff was either moved to another country or very well hidden. If they don't find the weapons it does not mean to say the justification for war is removed. The British Army discovered very, very few arms caches in Northern Ireland, and it is very much smaller than Iraq. It's highly likely that they will find something which will force a lot of newspapers to eat a lot of sand."
What they said
'Donald Rumsfeld's comments change the agenda and no one will believe anything that is said until there is a statement. The Prime Minister should make a statement to Parliament'
Doug Henderson Labour, former armed forces minister
'These are very serious allegations and if they are true then they would substantially undermine the Government's legal and political case for going to war'
Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman
'This is a very serious matter because whereas I might have been against the war from the outset a considerable number of MPs were persuaded that there was a threat directed against this country'
Alice Mahon, Labour MP for Halifax
'The Prime Minister must now come to the Commons and give an explanation of the claims that the dossier ... was altered ... by the Prime Minister's official spokesman and his team'
Tam Dalyell, Labour MP and father of the HouseReuse content