When Tom Kelly, Tony Blair's media mastermind (specialist subject: the works of James Thurber), appeared in front of the Hutton inquiry yesterday, it looked like several of Downing Street's chickens had come home to roost.
Mr Kelly, who is definitely, categorically no relation to Dr David Kelly, certainly has a gift for creating headlines. The Prime Minister's official spokesman was the man who famously compared the dead weapons scientist with the fictitonal fantasist Walter Mitty.
In the past week, the inquiry revealed that he also sent an e-mail describing the row between No 10 and Andrew Gilligan as "now a game of chicken with the Beeb". The corporation would not back down unless it saw "the screw tightening".
Yesterday, Mr Kelly maintained that not only The Independent but also the Hutton Inquiry had quoted him "out of context". When his Kentucky fried e-mail was flashed up in court, he tried to explain himself.
"I would stress that this language is one ... you know ... that if you put out of context up on a screen like this ... is not the words I would normally use ... I didn't mean I regarded it as a game," he said.
James Dingemans QC was unconvinced. Wasn't it clear that Downing Street's main preoccupation was to get the BBC to confirm Dr Kelly was its main source?
"I would emphasise again I did not regard it as a game, anything but," Mr Kelly insisted.
He was desperate to clear up any misunderstanding, but the PM's spokesman then appeared to repeat his Walter Mitty comparison.
"I had been told that he [Kelly] was a WMD expert, that he was not an intelligence expert, that he was not a member of the senior civil service, that he was not a member of the Defence Intelligence Staff ... what he was not was more important than what he was," he said. It sounded more like a riddle from a Chinese cracker than something you'd want on your epitaph, but Mr Kelly was obviously pleased with his description.
The spin doctor's thesis was that he was "trying to protect Dr Kelly's identity". But in revealing key clues about Mr Gilligan's source, it looked as though he was part of Alastair Campbell's campaign to embarrass the BBC. To put it another way, Downing Street felt that what's source for the goose was source for the gander.
Earlier, it was Mr Kelly's colleague, Godric Smith, who landed Mr Campbell in the soup. A former press officer for Sane, the schizophrenia charity, Mr Smith is perhaps uniquely qualified to judge the paranoia that dogs Downing Street.
It turned out that it was he who had intervened at the very last minute to stop Mr Campbell from leaking Dr Kelly's name to "one newspaper".
"I thought if a decision was taken to make this information pubic, then the Government should make it public itself ... I thought it was a bad idea," he said.
Ever polite, Mr Smith stressed that he had "great respect and admiration" for the Sultan of Spin. But, he added: "I am also very frank in the advice I give him."
While everyone else in No 10 is a wonk who likes to say Yes, Mr Smith was unafraid of defying his boss. As his colleagues devised gruesome means of pulling out Mr Gilligan's fingernails, Mr Smith even removed a reference to the BBC reporter in a statement, because it was "potentially defamatory".
Sadly, Mr Smith is leaving No 10 in the autumn. Tony Blair should beg him to stay. After all, if Chicken Licken tells you the sky is falling in, you ought not to believe him.Reuse content