A calamitous error of judgement. By Mr Blair

01 February 2004

Since Andrew Gilligan's reports on the BBC were broadcast last May, the debate in Britain has become absurdly narrow. Was the September dossier "sexed up" by Downing Street? Did Tony Blair know that some of the intelligence was wrong? Did he knowingly publish it against the wishes of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC)? How did David Kelly's name become public? All through these months of seething debate, the real story and the real scandal have been obscured. The intelligence in the dossier was wrong. Mr Blair probably believed the intelligence to be accurate, in which case he made a calamitous error of judgement.

The reasons why Britain went to war were not part of Lord Hutton's verdict. His remit was limited to the circumstances leading to Dr Kelly's death. Those who have slated his report without any qualifications ignore the broad evidence he had in front of him in relation to his narrow brief. On the one hand, there were the BBC reports of a "senior intelligence source" claiming that the Government sexed up the dossier. On the other, there was the chairman of the JIC, John Scarlett, insisting that the reports were wrong and that he had retained control of the document. Mr Scarlett's emphatic denial suggests there might be a story about the degree to which the JIC colluded with Downing Street, but that is a different allegation from the one made by the BBC. Indeed, it is almost the opposite one. Lord Hutton had no choice but to make his criticisms of the BBC, and the corporation must respond to them by reforming its editorial structures. The BBC's former director general, Greg Dyke, would have been the best figure to lead that response. He was an inspirational leader who had the trust of his staff. Under the circumstances, it was appropriate for Gavyn Davies to step down as chairman of the board of governors. But the governors he left behind should not have accepted Mr Dyke's offer of resignation so meekly.

Lord Hutton's report was hopelessly one-sided - rightly critical of the BBC but comically lenient on the Government. The fact that Lord Hutton was wholly uncritical of the way Dr Kelly's name became public exposed a naive gullibility about government and the way it operates with the media.

No doubt the flaws in the report will continue to make waves. But none of this is significant compared with the bigger picture. While Britain has been debating how Dr Kelly's name got into the newspapers, the death toll in Iraq has continued to rise. Thousands of people have been killed as a result of a war that was started because of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Yet he possessed no weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq Survey Group has given up a substantial search for weapons. It appears now to exist purely for the sake of President Bush and Mr Blair, as both men play for time. No doubt Mr Blair would like the group to pretend it is searching for weapons until after the next general election.

Meanwhile, US leaders are not being especially helpful to the Prime Minister. Condoleezza Rice has raised questions about whether any weapons will be found. Mr Bush declared last week that he wanted to know why the intelligence was so wrong. This is the real scandal. Why did he and Mr Blair not ask more questions about the intelligence before starting a war? The former US Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, provided the answer when he suggested last month that Mr Bush resolved to remove Saddam long before 11 September. Mr Blair was too weak to break the alliance with the US, the so-called special relationship that in this instance has brought no obvious benefits to Britain. For Mr Blair, the build-up to the war was not a time to ask searching questions about the intelligence.

So far Britain has had an inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Committee, which was derailed by the BBC row, a secret investigation by the Intelligence Committee, and the Hutton report into the death of a single official. It is disgraceful that Mr Blair has refused to hold a proper inquiry into the origins of the war. Assuming that he will not call one at this late stage, he should at least come clean and admit that the intelligence was wrong and that he made a misjudgement in placing such store by it.

Lord Hutton has reported, and the BBC must reform itself in order to retain the trust of those who fund it. It must stop giving so much ammunition to its enemies. The real point, however, is that the Hutton hysteria has been as much of a side-show as Alastair Campbell's current tour of theatres around the country. Britain went to war on a false premise. Now that Lord Hutton has reported, we need to know why.