The poison in Caesar's crown

The Report
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The Independent Online

The story goes that someone accused of financial fraud was acquitted in his absence. His solicitor sent him a telegram, for it was in the days when the Post Office provided this service. It went: "Justice has triumphed." The fraudster replied: "Appeal at once."

Mr Tony Blair has not only been acquitted: according to Lord Hutton, he emerges from the court without a stain on his coffee mug. There are some of us who continue to believe that it would still benefit from a dab of Fairy Liquid. Nor are we, it appears, in a complete minority: a poll in Friday's Guardian claims that many more people trust the BBC than they do the Government. Even so, it would be foolish to deny him his triumph, though it may already be acquiring a bitter taste.

He has certainly had a remarkable week: not only winning a vote in the Commons and being cleared by Lord Hutton, but securing the heads of Mr Gavyn Davies, Mr Greg Dyke and Mr Andrew Gilligan to stick over the mantelpiece. It is Phoenix-from-the-ashes with plumage even brighter than before. The temptation must be to gloat like Margaret Thatcher at her worst.

It may be worth retelling the story of William Whitelaw and his attitude to gloating. He confided it to me and Mr Frank Johnson of The Daily Telegraph on the prom at Brighton in the late 1970s, in the afternoon, during the Tory conference. The Labour government was in trouble with the unions and Edward Heath had just made a speech urging the party not to gloat. Whitelaw: "Ted says we shouldn't gloat, wrong to gloat, mustn't do it, no, no, no. Well, I can tell you, I'm gloating like hell."

Some of Mr Blair's colleagues have shown signs of doing likewise. Not Mr Blair. Last Friday he had disposed of Mr Davies, Mr Dyke and Mr Gilligan, and received a perhaps unnecessarily abject apology from the latter's deputy and temporary replacement, Lord Ryder. He asked us to "draw a line" under the affair, to "move on".

The words are now used by politicians when they want something to be forgotten. Recently they have been used over Iraq's undiscovered weapons of mass destruction. Though Lord Hutton refused to deal with this subject, it figures in his report. It reminds people of the war and the bogus reasons which impelled us to enter it. These, of course, were the published reasons, the pretext. The real reasons were different - principally, Mr Blair's resolution to stand with the United States come what might. This is why I believe a separate inquiry would not get us much further.

But within his self-imposed limitations, which are understandable, Lord Hutton's report is a disgrace. He has, for instance, no warrant for concluding that Dr David Kelly never said what Mr Andrew Gilligan reported he said. Dr Kelly was dead by the time Lord Hutton was hearing evidence. But Ms Susan Watts gave evidence which substantially corroborated Mr Gilligan's version. Indeed, Mr Gilligan pointed this out to a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee before Lord Hutton's inquiry had begun. He was attacked for so doing, on the typically English ground that he was behaving in some way improperly rather than because what he was saying was untrue. Lord Hutton prefers to ignore Ms Watts, perhaps because she broadly upholds Mr Gilligan's version.

On whether the dossier was "sexed up", Lord Hutton tells us that this is a "slang expression" and that it can have two meanings. Why is the judge so sure? Why should it not have three, four or 22 meanings? The first meaning, according to him, is that the dossier was "embellished" with items of intelligence known to be false or unreliable to make the case against Saddam Hussein stronger. The second meaning is that the intelligence in the dossier was believed to be reliable but that it was drafted in such a way as to make the case against Saddam as strong as the intelligence permitted.

If the phrase was used in this second sense, Lord Hutton concluded, it could be said that the Government "sexed-up" the dossier. However, in the context of the broadcasts the allegation was "unfounded" - this was the bit that was reported - as it would have been understood by those who heard the broadcasts to mean that the dossier had been embellished with intelligence believed to be unreliable.

This is pure judicial sleight of hand, depending as it does on the invention of two arbitrary categories and then the assertion that an action falls into that category which produces innocent consequences. But why should the changing of "may" into "is able to" - one of the changes that No 10 imposed on Mr John Scarlett of the Joint Intelligence Committee - not amount to an embellishment which the intelligence authorities believed to be unreliable? For that is what it clearly was.

Lord Hutton does not consider it improper for No 10 to have been involved as it was in the dossier. It was, he says, to be presented to Parliament and the public rather than to the Government alone. But the proper persons to be involved were surely the ministers directly responsible, Mr Jack Straw and Mr Geoff Hoon, together with the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, who seems to have filled a subsidiary role throughout the proceedings.

There was certainly no constitutional reason for Mr Alastair Campbell to play the part he did. Mr Campbell's expertise is at the cheap end of journalism. This is not an activity to be despised. I have engaged in it myself. What he has no experience and only third-hand knowledge of is intelligence, security and weaponry, whether of mass destruction or of a more common-or-garden variety. And yet here he was, giving instructions - which Lord Hutton does not find reprehensible or even mildly surprising - to the chief of the JIC. Indeed, the dossier went between them a dozen times. Mr Scarlett resembled nothing so much as an ambitious young feature writer on the Daily Mail anxious to get his article into the paper and accordingly more than willing to make any changes which the editor might require to secure that end.

Lord Hutton writes that No 10's wishes may have "subconsciously" influenced Mr Scarlett and the other members of the JIC to make the wording "somewhat stronger" than it would have been in a normal JIC assessment. But why dive into this murky region at all? Why bring in Dr Freud when you can read the evidence? Rarely, indeed, has a report been so much at variance with the evidence on which it was based. And, in his apparent triumph, Mr Blair might reflect on William Blake's lines:

"The strongest poison ever known

Came from Caesar's laurel crown."