Grim for Alastair. Grim for us

A Question Of Trust - Mr Blair's USP is rapidly becoming his Achilles' heel and it is hard to see what he can do to restore his reputation
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The Independent Online

These are not the actual words Alastair Campbell used in his diary, parts of which he read aloud to the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly last week. But the Prime Minister's outspoken communications director could easily have adapted a famous phrase when he was musing earlier this summer about the cause of the Government's troubles: "It's trust, stupid."

In the past few days, opinion polls certainly seem to support the notion that his boss Tony Blair - the "pretty straight sort of guy" who dazzled voters in 1997 - is no longer trusted by a substantial proportion of the electorate. But Mr Campbell may take a little comfort from the fact that the crisis of trust at the heart of public life reaches beyond the Government. Other great institutions, once the bedrock on which the nation's sense of identity was founded, are also being undermined by feuds, scandals and the exposure of private misconduct.

The Roman Catholic Church is fighting a rearguard action against hugely damaging revelations about child sex abuse, while Anglican prelates astonish outsiders with their internecine quarrel over homosexual priests. "C of E, RIP" was the stark headline in Friday's Guardian, above an article that claimed "we are witnessing the end of the Church of England", and announced "the final unravelling of our national religious tradition". The Church's future head, Prince Charles, has been revealed as an adulterer, as well as the author of a series of puerile letters trying to influence government ministers. His immediate relatives have behaved little better, colluding with a process that has transformed the Royal Family from aloof figures into celebrities - and all too frequently a laughing stock.

The transition began with Diana, Princess of Wales, whose death six years ago has just been revisited by yet another author, who claims she was murdered. While it could be argued that anyone as unstable as the late Princess is bound to attract conspiracy theories, the same cannot be said of our elected leaders. Yet within 24 hours of the discovery last month of Dr Kelly's body, private conversations and emails began to canvass the possibility that he had been murdered. Something similar happened after the dreadful attack on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad last week, when I heard someone suggest within hours that the bombing was the work of the Americans.

Neither of these theories is remotely plausible, although the one about Dr Kelly is remarkably persistent, fuelled by the media's careful use of the adjective "apparent" when discussing his suicide. Some readers seem to regard this as code, implying knowledge of dirty business involving the security services, when it is merely an attempt to avoid pre-empting the outcome of the inquiry. No doubt such rumours are distressing to his family, but they should also be a warning to the Government of how seriously Mr Blair and his inner circle have lost the electorate's trust.

This is far more worrying than the travails of the Church and the monarchy, both of which are institutions we can perfectly well survive without. As far as organised religion is concerned, many of us have already made the break, troubling the local vicar only on ceremonial occasions such as christenings, funerals and weddings. The realisation that priests and princes do not automatically deserve our trust may be painful for anyone brought up in the old culture of snobbery and deference. But giving up illusions is a healthy part of the transition to a modern, secular, democratic state, as other nations have already discovered.

When it comes to the Government, matters are very different. We do not choose our monarchs or archbishops, but we do elect our leaders, and Mr Blair won the 1997 general election not just by presenting himself as a break with Labour's past - he would not be scuppered by the economy, like Harold Wilson, or the trades unions, like Jim Callaghan - but by persuading voters that he was honest and straightforward. It was his unique selling point, and it is the reason why the events of the past few weeks call into question not just his conduct but his survival.

With hindsight, Mr Campbell's diary entry for 1 June, after a flying visit to Iraq with Mr Blair, has turned out to be extraordinarily prescient. Writing six weeks before the death of Dr Kelly, Mr Campbell recorded his private fears about Andrew Gilligan's contested report on the Today programme: "It was grim, it was grim for me, grim for TB and there is this huge stuff about trust." It is precisely "this huge stuff about trust" that should be worrying both men as the Prime Minister returns from his holiday in the West Indies, and prepares to give evidence before Lord Hutton on Thursday.

According to a Guardian/ICM poll conducted last weekend, half the electorate believes the Government deliberately embellished its September dossier to justify going to war with Iraq. Even more, 68 per cent, think that the Government was unfair in its treatment of Dr Kelly. Just under a quarter of those polled believe its insistence that the dossier was not "sexed up", with 57 per cent of skilled manual workers - an essential element in Mr Blair's ambitious plan for a third consecutive Labour victory - believing the BBC's allegations. A Populus poll, earlier this month, suggested that 52 per cent trust Mr Blair very little, or not at all.

What he needs to do this week is far more than show that he has clean hands as far as the handling of Dr Kelly is concerned. Mr Blair's aides can argue about semantics, and they may think it necessary, post-Hutton, to supply a sacrificial lamb in the shape of the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, whose disgraceful defence of the use of cluster bombs in the conflict means he should not be much lamented. But what is really destabilising Mr Blair's premiership is the suspicion that he was less than frank with the House of Commons and the public about his reasons for going to war.

If we cannot trust him to tell the truth about the most momentous decision a British prime minister ever has to take, why should we believe him about anything else? In that sense, his USP is rapidly turning into his Achilles' heel, and it is hard to see what he can do to restore his reputation in the absence of much better evidence for the existence of nasty weapons in Iraq before the war than we have seen so far. I suppose he could produce his diaries, if they exist, and let us know what was really going through his mind between September last year, when the first dossier was published, and the moment when the bombs began to fall on Baghdad in March.

But this Prime Minister has always given the impression that he prefers to reserve such frankness for his maker - whoever that may be - rather than the ordinary people who elected him. And the point about this trust stuff, if I may employ a bit of New Labour vernacular for a moment, is that it works two ways. Mr Blair has not shown much faith in us, and that is why so many of us no longer trust him.