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All the Prime Minister's men
(Filed: 24/08/2003)

Tony Blair's allies make no great claim for the Prime Minister's mood this weekend. "You can't imagine just how grim this is for everyone here," said one last night, as Mr Blair settled down to prepare for his appearance before the Hutton Inquiry this week.

From the haven of his Barbados holiday home, Mr Blair slipped into Chequers on Friday. For almost a month, he has been shielded from the public gaze, his voice unheard.

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Mr Blair will break his silence on Thursday when, taking the witness stand in Court 73 at the Royal Court of Justice at 10.30am, he will confirm his full name. During the ensuing two-and-a-half hours Mr Blair will be cross-examined over his involvement in the circumstances leading to the death of Dr David Kelly, the Ministry of Defence scientist who apparently took his life after being named as the source of BBC claims that the Government inserted "sexed-up" intelligence into its Iraq WMD dossier.

He will be asked for details of what role he played in the construction of that case and whether he pressed the intelligence services to go further than they wished in describing the threat posed by Saddam.

His defence, suggest allies, will be that he restrained, rather than encouraged, those who wanted to use Dr Kelly for political ends when he first came forward. Thereafter, he insisted that the case be handled in the MoD according to "whatever processes were normal". Although he backed every key decision, he will tell Lord Hutton that each was signed off by Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary.

It is a defence, however, that is already buckling under the strain of evidence to the contrary. The cross-examination of Mr Blair's key lieutenants last week revealed how he regularly sought to manipulate events at one remove. It also revealed the extent of the breakdown in trust within Downing Street and between Number 10 and the intelligence services.

It was Jonathan Powell who first broke the news to Mr Blair that the MoD thought that it had unmasked the "mole" who had passed to the BBC damaging information about the preparation of a dossier, published last September, on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Blair, who was staying in the Marriott Hotel in Liverpool on the evening of July 3, had called his chief of staff to check on the day's developments in London. He was told an official in the MoD had come forward admitting to meeting Andrew Gilligan, the Today defence correspondent whose story that Downing Street had inserted unreliable material against the wishes of the intelligence service had enraged Number 10.

Mr Blair will, no doubt, be asked what calls he made on the issue that night and the following day. We already know that, by the next day, three of his most senior advisers were huddled in an office plotting what to do.

At 6pm on Friday July 4, Mr Powell was summoned to Sir David Manning's Downing Street room. Inside he found Mr Blair's chief foreign policy adviser with Sir David Omand, the Security and Intelligence Co-ordinator, and John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the body that advises Mr Blair on intelligence matters and had overseen the compilation of the September dossier.

The quartet were waiting for the MoD to report on what Dr Kelly had admitted about his meeting with Gilligan in an interview that had been arranged by Sir Kevin Tebbit, the MoD permanent secretary. Sir Kevin had, he told the inquiry last week, wanted the interview handled "as coolly as possible, not by people who were themselves caught up in the intense political issues of the moment".

On that Friday those "intense political issues" centred around a report due out the following Monday from the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) which would decide whether Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's director of communications, or the BBC had won the row over the Gilligan story.

As Mr Blair's most senior aides waited for the outcome of Dr Kelly's interview, they first discussed sending him to the FAC. Meanwhile a letter from Sir Kevin spelling out that the scientist denied being the journalist's source was faxed through. While Dr Kelly admitted meeting Gilligan, he had not, he said, told him anything that could justify the most contentious elements of his story. Sir David Omand immediately faxed the letter to Chequers, where the Prime Minister was spending the weekend.

A crucial aspect of Mr Blair's defence will be that he resisted calls to make public the revelation despite the political ground to be gained in doing so. It was clearly a temptation that Mr Blair thought it wise not to lay in the path of his director of communications. Mr Campbell only found out about the mole's exposure from Mr Hoon on Saturday - two days after the Prime Minister and Mr Powell knew.

On Sunday, July 6, Mr Powell took a second call from Mr Hoon. It provides telling evidence of nature of the relationship between Defence Secretary and Downing Street, making clear that, although Mr Hoon was initially more aggressive, Mr Blair was in control of events from the start.

"(Hoon) said he had been talking to Alastair Campbell and was again concerned that we had not passed on this information to the FAC and that should we reconsider this issue again," Mr Powell told the inquiry last week.

Mr Hoon was minded to be "severe" but he also thought that it might be possible to get a "plea bargain" from the eminent scientist. The chief of staff promised to relay Mr Hoon's views to Mr Blair at Chequers. The Prime Minister was already deep in conversation with Sir David Omand about the case. Both men were reluctant to "go public" until they knew more about what, exactly, Dr Kelly had told the BBC journalist.

Sir David wrote to Sir Kevin, telling him to consider re-interviewing Dr Kelly and to prepare to release his name to the press if it became necessary. "The Prime Minister has asked for a deeper analysis of what the official has actually said, read against the account Gilligan himself has given the FAC," Sir David wrote.

Mr Blair sad there were "too many unknowns for us to approach the FAC now". Nevertheless, if coverage of the FAC report "changes the situation", Mr Blair warned, "we may need to react quickly".

Dr Kelly may have had the impression at the end of his interview on Friday that the episode was at an end. Mr Blair, it is now clear, had other ideas.

As Sir Kevin told the inquiry last week: "I was told by David Omand that the Prime Minister was following this very, very closely indeed, that he was not minded to ask for any precipitate action but the implication was that he wanted something done about it."

On Monday morning Mr Blair was back in Downing Street. Entering his ground-floor study, known to staff as "the den", his first order was to call a meeting of Sir David Omand, Sir Kevin and Mr Scarlett. Mr Blair had to wait a while, however. Mr Campbell had already called Mr Scarlett to meeting of his own.

The director of communications had also called Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, to his office in 12 Downing Street to discuss the response to the FAC report due out that morning.

The Prime Minister, perhaps nonplussed, started without the JIC chairman as soon as Sir David Omand and Sir Kevin arrived. Senior civil servants have told The Telegraph that Mr Blair's decision to call this high-level meeting, the first of a number over the next 48 hours, gives the lie to claims that the MoD was the "lead department" in the handling of the Kelly affair.

It was in this meeting and in a further two the next day that all the key decisions regarding Dr Kelly were taken. Mr Hoon was not present at any time.

No minutes were kept of any of the Downing Street meetings of July 7 and 8 but an official account has been supplied to Lord Hutton, an amalgamation the recollections of those present. Sir David Omand has also supplied his own account of those that he attended.

We know from these accounts that Mr Blair was concerned to find out what Dr Kelly really thought about Saddam's weapons capability and that he wanted a "forensic examination" of Dr Kelly's denial that he was Gilligan's source. Dr Kelly was duly pulled back from a training session in a Norfolk RAF base for a second grilling at 4pm that afternoon. The notes of the interview were then circulated to Mr Blair's most senior aides.

Despite the Prime Minister's instruction that nothing be done without Sir David Omand's permission, it is now clear, thanks to the testimony of Godric Smith, one of Mr Blair's official spokesmen, that Mr Campbell was losing patience with the delay.

As Mr Smith wandered into Mr Campbell's office that evening, he found him on the phone to Mr Hoon. Switching the call to speakerphone so that Mr Smith could hear, the two men discussed leaking the story to a single newspaper that night. Aghast, Mr Smith insisted that he thought the plan was a "bad idea".

The next morning, Mr Blair was due to give evidence at a Commons committee at 10am. As soon as he returned he dismissed his junior staff and again assembled the most senior of his aides to discuss the results of Dr Kelly's second grilling.

Sir David Omand told Mr Blair that Dr Kelly's account of his meeting with Gilligan seemed to suggest that he was indeed the journalist's single source for the story and that he had "heavily embellished" his controversial report.

The questions remained, however, of whether to put this information into the public domain and if so how and when.

In front of Mr Blair lay a draft press release, prepared by the MoD, for use if Dr Kelly's name had had to be rushed out to counter a negative FAC report. In the event, the committee had split on party lines and its conclusions were seen as a "score draw".

As the debate flowed about what to do next, first Mr Powell, then Mr Campbell scribbled their suggested amendments to the draft release. By now it had become a question of how, not if, Dr Kelly would be "outed".

Sir David warned that Number 10 might be asked about what they knew of the Gilligan source by the Intelligence and Security Committee, the body of MPs and peers that oversees the intelligence and security services.

He suggested writing a letter to Ann Taylor MP, its chairman and a former member of the Cabinet, revealing that an official had come forward who may be Gilligan's source. This would also, he pointed out, be a low-key way of making the development public since the Government would make the letter available to the press. Mr Blair agreed on the strategy and Mr Scarlett was told to draft the letter.

An hour later, when Mr Blair was back in "the den", the news came through that Mrs Taylor was refusing to go along with the ruse. If Downing Street wanted this information out, it was up Number 10 to put out a statement, she said.Mr Blair, however, was insistent that any statement should come from the MoD and he and his team returned to work on the draft release.

As they finished the document Sir Kevin arrived to discover that one of his staff was about to be publicly exposed as a mole. In a devastating piece of evidence, the senior civil servant last week came as close as anyone has so far to naming Mr Blair for the decision to "out" Dr Kelly.

Dr Kelly, previously told that it "should not be necessary" to release his name, was informed that a statement was about to made. It would not name him, press officers reassured the scientist. However, as they assured him of their support, under indirect Downing Street orders they were handing out clues to journalists that would lead them to his door. Within 24 hours Dr Kelly's name was public and he was forced to flee to the West Country to avoid the press pack.

Downing Street, meanwhile, was still plotting how best to make best political use of him. Mr Hoon was last week shown to have overruled Sir Kevin when he insisted that Dr Kelly appear before both the FAC and ISC.

The civil servant had urged the Defence Secretary to "have some regard for the man himself", but Mr Hoon replied that it would be better "presentationally" if Dr Kelly was forced to give evidence to the FAC. As reported in The Sunday Telegraph last week Mr Hoon has told colleagues he thinks the publication of that letter will end his Cabinet career.

It became clear this week, however, that he was acting in concert with the Prime Minister's own wishes. On July 10, Mr Powell wrote to Mr Blair's private secretary, Clare Sumner: "Tried PM out on Kelly before the FAC and ISC. He thought that he probably had to do both but need to be properly prepared beforehand." Sir David records that the Prime Minister had earlier said that he thought "in conscience" a request from the FAC to interview Dr Kelly could not be resisted.

The real reason for forcing Dr Kelly to give evidence in public may have slipped out in another email sent within Downing Street on July 10. Just before 3pm Tom Kelly, the second of the Prime Minister's official spokesmen, wrote to Mr Powell: "This has now become a game of chicken with the Beeb - the only way they will shift is if they see the screw tightening."

Mr Blair can expect to be asked whether he saw Dr Kelly as a "player or played with" in this game. And whether he, unlike many of his aides, gave a moment's thought to the consequences for Dr Kelly of his actions.

The decision to "out" Kelly for mainly political purposes may be damaging but it is the slow unravelling of Mr Blair's case for war on Iraq that may in the end prove fatal.

The key BBC claim, that Downing Street inserted the judgement that Saddam could use chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes into the dossier against the wishes of the intelligence agencies, has been shown to be inaccurate. It contains sufficient truth, however, to continue to dog Mr Blair as he takes the stand this Thursday.

When Mr Campbell was asked by the FAC for a list of changes he had asked Mr Scarlett to be made to the dossier, he supplied 11 "plus some drafting points".It emerged this week that one of those points was, indeed, a request to harden claim that the Iraqi military could use WMD in 45 minutes from "may be able" to "are able".

Mr Campbell told Lord Hutton that this was a minor point since the harder claim had already been accepted in the foreword of the document. Under cross-examination, however, Mr Blair's director of communications admitted it was a sufficiently serious request that Mr Scarlett was forced to "check . . . against the raw intelligence and he duly did".

Mr Campbell added: "I had no part in what he wrote ultimately, but I pointed out that inconsistency."

As today's poll in this newspaper reveals, two-thirds of Britons feel that they were "deceived" by the Government in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Mr Blair has a chance to rebut the charge before a judge this week but the jury that matters may have already decided his fate.

23 August 2003: Blair returns to face Hutton
19 August 2003: Blair's chief of staff tells of No 10 summit to consider what to do about Dr Kelly
22 August 2003: Hoon put block on Kelly giving MPs his view of WMD