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A messy draw

The verdict of Hutton may have cleared Tony Blair but the court of public opinion is more divided

Andrew Rawnsley, political journalist of the year

Sunday February 1, 2004 The Observer

Gavyn Davies: gone. Greg Dyke: gone. Andrew Gilligan: gone. Michael Howard's honeymoon: over. The plots of backbench malcontents to topple him: scotched. Brownite hopes that their hero might be in Number 10 before the next election: dashed.

Tony Blair: still there. You may foggily recall from the headlines of a few days ago that this was going to be the week that could finish the Prime Minister. At best, so it was widely forecast, his authority and credibility would be irretrievably devastated by the verdict of Lord Hutton. At worst, such were the predictions from those who forgot that judicial inquiries in Britain virtually never lead to any political resignations, the Law Lord would be the Prime Minister's nemesis.

Once again, predictions of Mr Blair's imminent demise have proved to be exaggerated. Heads have rolled, but not the Prime Minister's. His triumphant face remains firmly attached to his neck. Once again, he has prevailed against apparently daunting odds. As icing on his victory cake, even Clare Short says she will give up calling for him to go since no one's listening. Once again, Tony is Teflon.

Well, up to a point, m'lud. I reported to you a while ago that Mr Blair has been confident for some months that he would be exonerated on the lethal charge that he lied, but Number 10 was, nevertheless, braced for at least some criticism of the Government from the judge. It thought it was particularly exposed about the manner in which Dr David Kelly came to be outed.

So when it finally got its clammy hands on the Law Lord's report on Tuesday lunchtime, Downing Street reacted to its contents with almost as much disbelief as BBC executives.

While Alastair Campbell took over his old room in Downing Street to go through the report with one team of officials, Mr Blair and senior aides devoured it in the Cabinet room. As they examined the report, they were, in the words of one of the Prime Minister's aides, 'gobsmacked' at how absolutely Hutton had cleared the Government of every charge against it.

'Yes, you can say it came as a pleasant surprise,' one official at Number 10 laughingly understates the gales of relief that gusted through Downing Street. Says another very close ally of Mr Blair: 'I always thought it was going to be either two-nil to us or a one-all draw with the BBC. As it turned out, of the 15 questions asked, it was 14 and a half to us.'

A massive Number 10 operation was poised to spin up findings that suited the Government and spin down any judgments that were discomforting. Instead, they found themselves searching for any criticism of Downing Street or Whitehall at all. At every twist and turn of all the many convolutions of the Kelly Affair, the Law Lord found for the politicians, the civil servants and the intelligence chiefs while being comprehensively unforgiving of the mistakes made by the BBC.

The verdict of Hutton provided the inhabitants of Number 10 with the great satisfaction of watching the corporation being forced to report its own mauling on every outlet. For Mr Blair, the most important target was not the BBC, but the Tories. Hutton gave him the opportunity to execute a parliamentary crushing of Michael Howard. In the estimation of one Cabinet Minister, while the Hutton verdict may not do 'a fantastic lot' for Mr Blair's standing with the public, what it does do is 're-assert his dominance in Parliament and, perhaps most importantly, it completely screws Michael Howard'.

I observed some weeks ago that the Tory leader had adopted a high-risk pre-Hutton strategy by accusing the Prime Minister of being a liar. I have since learnt that some of Mr Howard's advisers were of the same view. The Leader of the Opposition found himself in the perilous position of going at the Prime Minister with all guns blazing when Hutton had supplied him with nothing but blanks. Colleagues say he is still nursing the bruises inflicted upon him by Mr Blair. A parliamentary encounter which the Tories - and many other people - had expected to be an occasion for Michael Howard to dismember the integrity of the Prime Minister was inverted into one in which Tony Blair savaged the character of the Tory leader.

Some astonished wags at Westminster have been joking that Lord Hutton's findings were so disappointing for the Tories, so generous to the Government, and so excruciating for the BBC that the report could have been written by Alastair Campbell. I'm not sure that is quite right. Had Number 10's former director of communications really been in charge of the Hutton report, the great spinmeister might have issued instructions to sex it up with at least a bit of criticism of the Government in order to make the findings more credible with the public.

Because, even in politics, there can be such a thing as enjoying too complete a victory. One astute Minister remarks: 'I don't think the vast majority of people wanted Tony to be destroyed by Hutton. My feeling is that they think the Government should suffer some sort of reprimand for what happened with Kelly, the dossiers, all that. I fear that the sight of us walking away from this entirely unscathed offends people's sense of fair play. It could even make some hate us more.' This is certainly the backlash effect that Hutton is having in some sections of the press.

The understandable exultation initially felt in Number 10 about Hutton has given way to a growing concern among some in Downing Street that the verdict was too good for them. The con trasting images of Campbell at a presidential podium issuing decrees on media ethics while a tearful Greg Dyke is mobbed by his staff is also thought, within the Government itself, to have been very unhelpful.

'I don't know why Alastair has been out there at all,' sighs one member of the Cabinet. 'We all understand how he feels,' remarks one adviser to a senior Minister. 'But we do wish Alastair would now shut up.'

While the Hutton verdict does remove a big negative that has hung over Tony Blair for months, it does not mean that he will get the complete closure on the controversy that he seeks, nor be able to extinguish the bigger questions about the invasion of Iraq. The Law Lord carefully excluded himself from passing any judgment about whether the intelligence used to make the case for war was faulty. The Prime Minister is as passionately convinced as ever that removing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do. On that, he will never concede. His critics will be just as unrelenting in demanding to know, as the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq fast approaches, whatever happened to those damned elusive weapons of mass destruction. Last week, David Kay, the man picked by the White House to lead the search for them, told a Senate inquiry: 'It turns out we were all wrong, probably. And this is most disturbing.'

Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and now even George W. Bush are beginning to concede to the possibility of serious intelligence failures. Mr Blair can go on being battered with questions about why no weapons of mass destruction have been uncovered in Iraq. Or, at some point, he will have to try to put a line under this by making the embarrassing admission that the intelligence was faulty and find an explanation for why it was wrong. With Hutton behind him, he may now be readier to do the latter.

Another reason why the Law Lord's verdict will not be as definitive with a lot of public opinion as Number 10 might hope is the decline of deference. The public is much less inclined than it used to be to subjugate its own opinions to the word of authority figures, even Law Lords.

The open process of the inquiry means that all the evidence and the revelations, many of them extraordinary, about the innermost wiring of this government have been available for inspection on the internet by anyone who is interested. Any citizen can be his or her own Lord Hutton.

The opinion polls published since Hutton delivered his verdict have already taken some of the bubbles out of Number 10's celebrations. ICM for the Guardian had 45 per cent of voters still believing that Mr Blair lied when he denied that he authorised the leaking of Dr Kelly's name. An improvement for him on the last time they asked the question, but only by three points. YouGov for the Daily Telegraph had 56 per cent of respondents agreeing that the Hutton report was a whitewash and less than a third trusting Ministers to tell the truth.

Bloodied though the BBC may be, the politicians remain conscious that the corporation still commands much more public trust than they do. The manner in which the BBC has reported its own savaging has rebounded to its credit. The Shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, won himself a loud round of applause on Question Time when he remarked: 'The BBC has reported on itself with an astonishing degree of impartiality. I don't think there's any other broadcasting organisation that would have done that.'

Nor, he could have added, any newspaper. I can think of no newspaper in Britain which would write headlines speaking of its own humiliation.

This is why Ministers are now suddenly anxious to sound like the very best friends of the corporation's independence. 'We have to be very careful that we aren't seen trampling on the BBC,' says one member of the Cabinet, worried that any hint of vindictiveness will backfire against the Government.

The anxiety not to be seen as wanting to neuter the BBC's journalism is most likely to impel Tony Blair to approve a new chairman of the corporation who is utterly immune to the charge of cronyism. If the result of reforms to the BBC's editorial procedures is to ensure that its journalism is always rigorous, that will also be good for its long-term health. The more rigour underpins its reporting, the more robust that reporting can be.

As Alastair Campbell confided to his diary, the gargantuan struggle with the BBC was pursued because he wanted 'a win, not a messy draw'. From the Law Lord, he and the Prime Minister got a win so comprehensive that it astonished even them. Paradoxically, so absolute was their exoneration by Lord Hutton that it does not seem to have served them as well as they may have initially thought. The verdict from the court of public opinion looks much more like a messy draw.