The case against the Prime Minister

07 September 2003

Lord Hutton's inquiry has become the most illuminating and theatrical side-show in recent British political history. Over the normally quiet weeks of August we have learnt an extraordinary amount about the conduct of government. Information, usually kept secret for 30 years, has been made available on the internet. But it is the detail about the Blair administration itself that is most revelatory. Act One of the inquiry shone fresh light on the neurotic activity inside Downing Street over the preparations for the dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. It also showed that the writing of the dossier was an oasis of calm compared with the series of meetings and emails once David Kelly had come forward as the possible source for Andrew Gilligan's Radio 4 story on sexing-up the dossier. Act Two, when the Hutton inquiry reconvenes, will be incomparably more theatrical as previous witnesses are challenged more intensively about their roles.

Despite these insights, the inquiry remains a side-show. Lord Hutton's brief is a narrow one: to investigate the circumstances that led to the death of Dr Kelly. Much of his focus will therefore be on a single BBC story and the Government's response. There is a danger that the mesmerising theatricality of the inquiry will obscure for good what should be a much wider debate about the origins of the war with Iraq. The verdict on the Prime Minister's role in the war is at risk of becoming dependent on Lord Hutton's final report alone.

This newspaper has returned time after time to the much bigger question of why Britain went to war in the first place. We persist still, several months after the war, because the more serious case against the Prime Minister cannot be lost. Despite its narrow agenda regarding the death of Dr Kelly, the Hutton inquiry has revealed much about the circumstances in which Tony Blair took this country to war. Downing Street took the BBC's allegation that it had inserted the "45-minute" claim into the Iraq dossier extremely seriously. It amounted to lying to Parliament. Indeed, last week, the Prime Minister admitted that if the allegations were true he would have to resign.

But what is becoming increasingly clear is what this newspaper suspected all along: the intelligence regarding the threat posed by Iraq was hopelessly wrong. The case against Mr Blair is that he was either naive enough to believe the alarmist intelligence, or that he had his doubts but chose to suppress them in public, presenting Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat. Either charge is grave, implying that the Prime Minister took this country to war on the basis of an appalling misjudgement or on a premise that he knew to be false.

Last Thursday at his Downing Street press conference Mr Blair changed his line on Saddam's missing weapons. He did not express confidence that they would be found, or even that weapons programmes would be triumphantly paraded at some unspecified future date. Instead he declared: "I have no doubt at all. I have been in this position all along, that we will find evidence that those programmes were continuing well after Iraq was saying they had been discontinued and shut down." That has not been his position "all along". Before the war he claimed with a passion that Iraq posed an imminent threat, presenting the alarmist intelligence without a single word of qualification about the likely unreliability of the information. The Hutton inquiry has revealed that a senior figure in Downing Street, Jonathan Powell, expressed concerns about the claim that Iraq represented an immediate threat. Last week a senior intelligence officer who recently retired confirmed that he and some of his colleagues had concerns about the way the intelligence material was being used by Downing Street.

A more complete picture is fast emerging of Downing Street trying to justify a war that was proving to be more unpopular than Mr Blair had calculated. This forms the other part of the case against the Prime Minister. Evidently he made commitments to President Bush about Britain's support for military action last September, or possibly earlier than that. He hoped that the United Nations would legitimise the attack or make it unnecessary by forcing Saddam to comply. The UN refused to play ball and Mr Blair was left stranded with his earlier commitment to back the US with British forces. The war was therefore a failure of foreign and domestic policy.

The Independent on Sunday has no vendetta against Mr Blair. He has many admirable qualities and leads a government that has achieved much, but the charges against him on the war are much more serious than the case being considered by Lord Hutton. Unless he is able to answer them fully he will not regain political authority, nor will he deserve to do so.