Howard bet the farm on Hutton - and lost

The Tory leader is hobbled: he needs to eat a small slice of humble pie and moderate his decibel level
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The Independent Online

Sorry is the hardest word for politicians to utter. Michael Howard simply cannot not bring himself to respond to the Prime Minister's demand that he apologises for implying, in previous Commons exchanges, that Mr Blair may have lied. The first dilemma for Mr Howard has been whether to accept the findings of the Hutton inquiry at all. Unfortunately, for perfectly understandable reasons, the Tories had previously blocked all the rabbit holes down which to run by committing themselves, in advance, to acknowledging that Lord Hutton's report should be the last word on the matter.

So at the beginning of his speech next Wednesday, Mr Howard is hobbled by having accepted, without reservation, the conclusions of the report.

This might still, however, be the time to say something like, "I have posed legitimate questions about the Prime Minister's integrity but I readily accept that Hutton has answered these questions and, having now reflected on the report before today's debate I accept that the Prime Minister did not... etc."

Just as the Panorama programme suggested that the BBC had "bet the farm" on Andrew Gilligan, so Mr Howard bet the Tory farm on Hutton. Next Wednesday's debate is in danger of turning into a Labour witch hunt against Mr Howard, whether or not he even manages to get through his speech without uttering some form of apology. And yet, if he does, he further circumscribes his credibility and boxes himself in on the wider debate about weapons of mass destruction.

The irony, however, is that yesterday produced a plethora of public opinion polls showing overwhelming public scepticism regarding Lord Hutton's conclusions. The charge of "whitewash" is beginning to stick. Mr Howard needs to find a form of words which enables him to tap into the huge public perception that simply does not accept that the Government did nothing wrong. This will be one of the hardest speeches of Mr Howard's career and he will need the best brains on hand to assist him. The opportunity for narrow point-scoring on nit-picking issues of detail does not exist and this approach let him down badly last week.

Perhaps this is the time to call in Kenneth Clarke again, having made his debut recently on the opposition front bench, to wind up the debate. He comes to the issue with his credibility, over his anti-war credentials, intact and he would be able to widen the debate on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

It is the cruellest of ironies that there is a strong case to point out that Lord Hutton's conclusions simply do not follow the evidence, but the Tory leader is hobbled from joining in this part of the argument. Perhaps, however, a small slice of humble pie and a moderate tone in the decibel level may help Mr Howard to ask the Prime Minister to explain why he is trusted even less by the public since the publication of the conclusions.

The public, rightly or wrongly, assumed that Lord Hutton's conclusions would give some kind of comfort to the Kelly family. They must feel bitterly aggrieved and the public senses this. Can Mr Howard allude to this without compromising his acceptance of the conclusions?

Of course, it can be argued that a rowdy triumphalist Labour Party in full cry against Mr Howard does not matter to him beyond the Westminster village. Indeed, it can be argued that Mr Howard can afford to ignore the reception he got in the Commons so long as he strikes a resonance outside.

In any exchange of this kind, however, the immediate judgement of the Commons does matter. Few believed that Margaret Thatcher's finest hour was her handling of the Westland crisis in 1986 when she was rumoured to be close to resignation. But the Commons exchanges against Neil Kinnock ensured her safety.

Mr Howard also needs to hug the BBC that may yet come up smelling of roses as public sympathy for Greg Dyke grows. It may seem that, with Lord Hutton so comprehensively trashing the BBC, there are no runs to be scored by a Tory party which has historically had its ups and downs with the corporation. But now might be the time for the Tories to take the lead in defending the independence of the BBC.

Mr Howard must also find a way to quiz Mr Blair on the central question of the inaccuracy of the intelligence reports that led the Government - and the Opposition - to support the case for war.

With mea culpa the flavour of senior members of the US government, including Condoleezza Rice, the Prime Minister should be challenged by Mr Howard on these issues.

Mr Howard's task is Herculean and he may not have the parliamentary wind in his sails, but public opinion may yet come to his rescue.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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