Hutton fever has broken out. If Lord Hutton were to sneeze in public it would be a minor sensation. What did the sneeze signify? Is it bad news for Tony Blair? The delay in the publication of Hutton's verdict makes matters worse. The unexpected vacuum has to be filled.
Last Wednesday it emerged that the Government had made a further submission to Hutton after the formal inquiry had ended. Parts of the BBC could hardly contain themselves as they sought to explain this dramatic and apparently sinister revelation. Within a couple of hours Hutton had issued a statement explaining that the BBC had also made a similar late submission, along with Andrew Gilligan and Dr Kelly's family. The hysteria subsided quickly. Hutton's words dampened the fevered brows rather than raised the temperature to a new high.
This mini-episode should serve as a warning to those who believe or hope that the Hutton verdict will cause a political earthquake. I cannot see how the judgement can or should make such an impact. There are two related questions continuing to undermine the Prime Minister: Why was the intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons so wrong? Why did he choose to believe the intelligence when many officials, ministers and former ministers had their doubts? Hutton is in no position to address either of these questions. His remit is narrowly defined to the circumstances leading up to the death of David Kelly. He does not strike me as the type who will range wildly beyond his brief.
A limited remit does not necessarily mean that Hutton's task is straightforward. Indeed I suspect an analysis of the origins of the war would be a less daunting challenge. As I have suggested before, only Kelly knew why he committed suicide. Furthermore, his death changed the way we perceived preceding events. To take one example, before his suicide the Foreign Affairs Committee was condemned as being weak and pathetic in its interrogations of witnesses. After his death it was attacked for being too aggressive. The original analysis was more accurate. Hutton must analyse the suicide without viewing the preceding events through this distorting prism.
What is so peculiar about the current vacuum is that, with the exception of the late submissions, we are all in a position to know precisely the nature of Hutton's challenge. Indeed, that is another reason why I am not anticipating a political earthquake. There will be no fresh information, no new killer facts, when he reports. The sensation of the Hutton inquiry last summer was its almost breathtaking openness. We all know what Hutton knows. The inquiry was held in public and the transcripts are on the internet, along with the revealing emails and memos that whirled around Downing Street and between various managers at the BBC. We can all be Hutton and decide for ourselves what happened. Indeed, many of us have given our verdicts. In some parts of the country it is the most popular game in town. They should turn it into a board game.
All that is missing is the interpretation of this body of information from a 72-year-old judge. No wonder he is taking his time. The burden bestowed on one figure not necessarily equipped to make judgements on the complex relations between politicians, journalists and officials must be terrifying.
Quite a lot of the evidence can be read in different ways, depending on whether you believe the Government had the right to defend itself vigorously against inaccurate reporting. In the row over the naming of David Kelly, for example, a fundamental question has been overlooked: Can Blair be blamed for wanting Kelly's name to be made public? When Kelly came forward to suggest that he might have been the source for Andrew Gilligan's story the BBC was insisting its scoop had come from a "senior intelligence source". As an official at the Ministry of Defence, he did not fit this description. At the time the media was virtually united in condemning the Government's version and singing the praises of the BBC for its exclusive presented and defended with such unapologetic bravado. What would you do if you had evidence to disprove this element of the BBC's defence? Only after the death of Kelly did the BBC admit to a "slip of the tongue" in describing him in a more elevated fashion. Given that Kelly had spoken to journalists without official authorisation and that he was not connected directly to the Joint Intelligence Committee which authorised the dossier, I am surprised Blair and his colleagues in Downing Street were so restrained. In a typically insecure New Labour manner, the name became public in a way that did not have anyone's fingerprints on the convoluted method. Not for the first time, in trying to avoid trouble Blair landed himself in a political difficulty.
Although I doubt if his difficulty is that great. I suspect the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, shares this doubt, which is why he made a pre-emptive strike at Prime Minister's Questions last week, raising the possibility that Blair lied in denying his direct involvement in leaking Kelly's name. Howard made his early assault on the assumption that he might not have the ammunition on the day of Hutton's judgement. At least I assume that was Howard's tactic. If it was not, he miscalculated, because I will be very surprised if Hutton declares that the Blair did indeed lie. There is not enough evidence for such a sweeping conclusion.
Arguably, Hutton has the material to condemn the Government's naming strategy. No doubt he will fan the flames over the row that broke out last week about whether Blair authorised the leaking of Kelly's name or whether he agreed to give a steer, a nod here and a wink there. What is the difference between a leak, a steer, a nod and a wink? In my view, this is a debate that will last for little more than 24 hours when the report is published, and any apparent crisis will be full of get-out clauses for Tony Blair. The Prime Minister has good cause to be nervous about the vote in the Commons on top-up fees for universities and the non-discovery of weapons of mass destruction but, as far as the Government is concerned, Hutton will be a one-day wonder.
But I am not Lord Hutton. I have been playing the game of assuming his role. The Prime Minister, a supposed control freak, has given away all control to a single individual who will determine his fate. Ultimately, if he chooses, this God-like figure can make or break careers. What is so extraordinary is that no one has a clue what his judgement will be.Reuse content