If he were an angler, Alastair Campbell could claim the gold cup for landing the largest red herring in the history of fishing. Single-handedly he has convinced half the media that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry was into the origins of his war with the BBC. He has traded ruthlessly on his knowledge that there is nothing the press love more than news stories about themselves, and brilliantly exploited it to divert attention from the Government's woes over Iraq. Personally, I should be happy to leave Alastair Campbell and Andrew Gilligan to slug it out between themselves on a desert island, so long as the rest of us can get back to the real issue of how Britain ended up at war on a false premise.
At yesterday's press conference of the Foreign Affairs Committee, John Stanley made an observation that went to the heart of the Government's embarrassment. All other modern wars stemmed from real world events - Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, Milosovic's ethnic cleansing of Kosovo, or the Taliban's complicity in 9/11. As the invasion of Iraq was intended as a pre-emptive strike, by definition it could not be a response to a real event, but depended for its justification on intelligence of "a real and present danger". That put colossal weight on the intelligence providing a cast-iron basis for war. Unfortunately the intelligence served up by the Government in its September dossier is now buckling under the strain of that responsibility.
This is not surprising, as the very first conclusion of the committee is that the UK was "heavily reliant on US technical intelligence, on defectors and on exiles with an agenda of their own". As a result, the Government made a number of alarmist claims in the run-up to the war on Iraq that now appear in conflict with the reality after the war. We have not found any of the chemical weapons factories which we were assured were rebuilt. We have not traced the nuclear weapons programme which we were assured had been restarted. And we have not uncovered any weapons of mass destruction, never mind any within a 45-minute drive of the artillery units.
With masterly irony, the committee invites the Government "to set out whether it still considers the September dossier to be accurate in the light of subsequent events". It then underlines just how difficult is the task it has set the Government by concluding that the unease about the more extravagant claims in the September dossier will not go away "unless more evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programmes comes to light". In short, ministers have got to come up with the real hardware, or concede that the September dossier was inaccurate.
Ministers have sought to escape from this predicament in two ways. The first is to plead for more time. However, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has sensibly stopped ministers from pushing the timetable for finding the weapons into the blue yonder in the hope that the rest of us will give up asking about them. The committee wants the Government to come up with the answers by the time ministers respond to their report, which by convention should be within two months.
The second escape route being tunnelled by ministers is to shift the standard of evidence required. They no longer promise to uncover actual weapons but talk of producing evidence of a potential to make such weapons. Thus last week in the Commons Tony Blair did not commit himself to producing actual weapons but to publishing "the findings'' of the Iraq Survey Group. But the case for war was not made on the basis that after we conquered Iraq we would be in a position to write a better dossier on Saddam's capacity. It was rigid in the claim that he had real weapons of mass destruction, and without them the case looks too thin to justify war.
There is another awkward question left for the Government by the committee which ministers should answer in even shorter order. The committee criticises the Government for claiming in the September dossier that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. We now know that the CIA sent a retired ambassador to Niger the preceding February to investigate these claims, and he reported that they were false. It is hard to believe that when the CIA read this false claim being repeated by their colleagues in Britain that they did not pick up the secure telephone line and ring up to warn them off a story they had discarded six months earlier.
Yet the Foreign Office has so far failed to reply to the committee's demands to say when they learnt that the documents on the alleged uranium purchase were crude forgeries. Why? Is it because the answer would reveal that ministers knew this part of the September dossier was wrong before Parliament voted for war but failed to correct the record? And if so, were there doubts in the minds of ministers about any other of the claims in the dossier?
If the matter itself were not so grave, it would be entertaining to watch the antics of the Government in evading responsibility for the September dossier. Alastair Campbell waxes indignant when it is suggested that anything in the dossier came from him. Jack Straw very deliberately told the Foreign Affairs Committee that the claim weapons could be ready in 45 minutes was not his claim. The lack of enthusiasm to take credit for the September dossier is eloquent about the Government's current lack of confidence in its claims. But somebody somewhere has to take responsibility for how the Government got it wrong, and I would not advise ministers to leave the blame to fall on the intelligence agencies. They have kept their heads down very loyally for the past month, but nothing would be more likely to provoke further murmuring from them than the sense that they were being set up as the fall guys.
Nor should ministers now be allowed to shrug their shoulders and say with a sigh that the intelligence agencies got it wrong. It was not the intelligence agencies who took the decision to go to war. The decision was that of the Prime Minister, and it was he who used intelligence to justify the case for war.
The tragedy was that the UN weapons inspectors had already demonstrated that the intelligence claims were unsound. Hans Blix observed again on Sunday that whenever they went to a site identified by western intelligence they drew a blank. It is extraordinary that this gulf between our intelligence information and the reality on the ground did not prompt doubts in the Government before they unleashed the war. I fear there is some truth in the suspicion that Washington wanted the inspectors out of Iraq before they comprehensively proved that Iraq was no threat.
Last Sunday was the feast day of Doubting Thomas. Famously he was misplaced in his doubts. But it will no longer do for the Government to take its cue from its sermons of last Sunday and urge us to have more faith in their claims that Saddam was a current and serious threat. If they hope to convince us that the war was justified, they will need to come up with weapons of mass destruction as tangible as the evidence that was required by Thomas.