The Week in Politics: Fog surrounding WMD still dangerous for Blair

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The Independent Online

The Cabinet minister looked John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, in the eye and asked: "Tell me, is the intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons correct?" Mr Scarlett said yes. "Do you believe he still has the weapons?" the minister asked. "Yes," came the reply.

The minister told me about the one-to-one meeting he had sought with Britain's intelligence chief a year ago as he explained why he still believed Tony Blair was right to go to war in Iraq. Although he was not criticising the spooks for the failure to find WMD in Iraq, he said they certainly had questions to answer.

The odds are that the intelligence community will get the lion's share of the blame from the inquiry into WMD announced this week. I can almost hear Mr Blair making a Commons statement in July, promising to learn the lessons of the Butler report, praising the unsung heroes in our intelligence services and insisting he "did the right thing" given the evidence presented to him on WMD.

I do wonder whether we really need another inquiry into the war. The "big picture" has already been painted in five readable books that cover the build-up to the conflict - Robin Cook's memoirs and others by the journalists John Kampfner, Peter Stothard, Peter Riddell and Philip Stephens. The common threads suggest that, after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, intervention by the United States in Iraq was inevitable. To his credit, Mr Blair helped to stall an unjustified revenge attack on Saddam Hussein and steered the Bush administration towards al-Qa'ida's Afghanistan base. But action against Saddam was only a matter of time, and the real issue was whether the US acted alone or with wider international support. Again, the Prime Minister acted honourably, edging George Bush down the United Nations track.

Along the way, there were important clues that Mr Blair had promised the US President at a series of summits that Britain would be at his side if the multilateral approach collapsed. As Mr Blair put it: "The UN must be the way to resolve the threat from Saddam, not avoid it."

Giving evidence to senior MPs on Tuesday, Mr Blair said he would still have won the critical vote last March if MPs had known that no WMD would be found in Iraq by now. I don't believe it. He might have won the vote - thanks to Tory support - but he would surely have failed to win over a majority of Labour MPs if they had possessed a crystal ball with no WMD inside it.

In recent days, Blair aides have been wondering what would have happened if the Prime Minister had not been so dependent on WMD to make his case for war, which gave him legal cover on the grounds that Iraq had flouted the UN's will. "Tony believed passionately in the moral case for toppling Saddam," one insider told me. "We urged him to say it publicly, but he wouldn't. Things would be a bit easier now if he had."

The perception that the Prime Minister was bounced into announcing the Butler inquiry by President Bush's decision to hold a similar investigation is only partly true. There was already a debate after the Hutton report about whether to have another inquiry. "Bush jumped the gun and forced our hand but we were moving that way," one Blair adviser said.

The Liberal Democrats also had a debate - about whether to sit on the Butler inquiry. Sir Menzies Campbell, their foreign affairs spokesman, was more cautious about a boycott than Charles Kennedy, but the leader insisted the party should not take part. I think Mr Kennedy was right. It is not clear from the ambiguous terms of reference that the Butler inquiry will be able to look into the decisions taken on the intelligence as well as the material itself.

The Prime Minister hopes that people are suffering from "WMD fatigue", and will not be anxiously awaiting Lord Butler's conclusions. He may be right but the result of today's Independent poll suggest otherwise. The fog that still surrounds the war is dangerous for Mr Blair and repeatedly returns to haunt him. I suspect he will have sleepless nights over the US inquiry into WMD, a far greater threat than Lord Butler's. After another week dominated by the WMD issue, ministers who feared the Hutton report would be too bad for Mr Blair or Geoff Hoon now complain it was too good. Far from winning a clean bill of health, the continuing controversy on WMD only highlights Mr Blair's biggest weakness: the voters' lack of trust in him.