Mr Howard has proved himself a wily politician

The truth is that Howard and Blair, both of them great survivors, seem to need each other
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The Independent Online

Just when it seemed safe to put the Hutton inquiry, together with the controversy surrounding WMD, into the safety of Lord Butler's secret committee, along comes Geoff Hoon with a guarantee that this story will continue to run and run.

If the Government wants to seek closure on this issue in order to return the political agenda to domestic issues, Wednesday's Commons debate has simply ensured that we are in for another gruelling dose of post-war controversy. Only a week ago it seemed as if the apparent exoneration of the Prime Minister by Lord Hutton would give him the excuse he needed to draw a line under the Iraq war and to "move on". It looked, also, as if Michael Howard would have every incentive to divert attention to other issues.

Somehow, Mr Blair and Mr Howard are destined to have their reputations defined by their performances on Iraq, however much each - for different reasons - may wish to change gear. This compelling tussle will eventually be as historic as the matching of Harold Wilson against Sir Edward Heath which defined British politics for over a decade 30 years ago.

Neither seems likely, ever, to strike a complete knockout blow against the other. One week, Howard will triumph totally and the talk is of Blair on political death row. The next, Blair - albeit thanks to the Hutton report - shows his immense capacity for recovery. But this week Mr Howard, as well, has also shown why he is one of politics' great survivors. The truth is that Blair and Howard seem to need each other.

Mr Howard has displayed the capacity of the wily politician, able to recover from a setback without it ruining his confidence. Of course, he had a little bit of luck - which eluded him in the Hutton report - with the decision of President Bush to hold an inquiry on WMD forcing the Prime Minister to do likewise. In spite of the afterglow of Hutton, Mr Blair suddenly needed Mr Howard's co-operation. The only way to minimise further charges of "whitewash" was if the Opposition leader was prepared to put his stamp of approval on Lord Butler's inquiry.

Mr Howard must have been momentarily torn on whether to co-operate, but he extracted a valuable commitment that the inquiry would be able to examine the use politicians put to intelligence they receive. Without Mr Howard's agreement, the Government would have been in severe difficulty. So the tone of the debate was shorn of the triumphalism which subsequently provoked such a backlash against Mr Blair the previous week. When Mr Howard became Tory leader, he described how he had recognised that although he had sometimes won arguments in the Commons, he had failed to get his points across to the country. It was a neat move when he reminded Mr Blair of this, and that helped to diffuse Labour demands that he grovel to the Prime Minister.

Equally, Mr Howard benefited by lowering his own decibel level. But as well as recognising his earlier error in his initial response the previous week, he successfully homed in on an extraordinary admission by Mr Blair to the Tory MP Richard Ottoway. This was that he did not know that the "45-minute" claim in the September 2002 dossier only meant short-range battlefield weapons and not long-range chemical and biological weapons which could be deployed as far away as Turkey, Cyprus and Israel.

This intervention has enabled Robin Cook effectively to drop both Mr Hoon and Mr Blair back in the soup. Mr Cook knew, from briefings he received while still in government, that no such strategic chemical or biological weapons existed. His recent book confirms that he raised this with Mr Blair, in a private meeting, before his resignation from the Government - giving the clear impression that surely the Prime Minister must have been similarly aware. Mr Howard further drove home the point that, if Mr Hoon was aware that WMD did not live up to the billing given in the British press, why is it that the Prime Minister maintains that he did not know this.

Mr Howard is now back off the ropes and, although his call for Mr Blair's resignation may be merely political posturing, his accusation of a dereliction of duty by the Prime Minister in not apparently knowing the nature of Iraq's weapons, is a charge that threatens to stick. Mr Blair's defence will be that the WMD argument was not central to the case he was making during the Commons debate on 18 March. But, in the context of the build-up to the war, the WMD dossier was used to create a climate of opinion - within the Labour Party - to persuade MPs to support government policy. As Tam Dalyell has observed, some Labour MPs may not have voted for the war if they knew then what Mr Hoon knew but was apparently unknown to Mr Blair.

The country may be on the point of suffering post-war "Hutton fatigue". Mr Howard will have to take care he does not risk boring the electorate. But having agreed with the terms of reference of the Butler inquiry, he has acknowledged, by implication, that the ultimate decision to go to war is a political decision for government, Parliament and the voters. So this does mean that he can still continue to raise the central issues without regard to Lord Butler's deliberations - as long as the rest of us are still listening.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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