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Butler Inquiry's flaws begin to rebound

THE decision by the Conservative Party to withdraw from the Butler Inquiry into the performance of the intelligence community over Saddamís weapons threatens to derail the governmentís attempts to return to a domestic agenda. It follows on from allegations by Clare Short and the growing row over the non-publication of the Attorney Generalís advice regarding the legality of the invasion of Iraq.

It is important, amid this plethora of intersecting rows, not to ignore the stated reason for the Tory withdrawal from the Butler Inquiry. The Conservative leader, Michael Howard, says the way Lord Butler has chosen to interpret his inquiryís terms of reference are "unacceptably restrictive". So they are, even if Mr Howard has been somewhat late in recognising this. Lord Butler has made it clear he will concentrate "principally on structures, systems and processes rather than on the actions of individuals". Quite how he proposes to distinguish between "structures" and "individuals" without turning somersaults in the air or tying himself in intellectual knots remains to be seen. If you are asked, as is Lord Butlerís brief, to "examine any discrepancies between the intelligence gathered, evaluated and used by the government" and what has been discovered since, surely that implies assessing who did the gathering, evaluating and final use-making? Besides, to attempt to separate out the formal reporting structures and their efficiency from the corrosive political atmosphere in the months before the Iraq war is ludicrous.

That said, another important question arises: should Mr Howard have recognised all this before initially agreeing to take part in the inquiry? Certainly, it was a fine judgment, given the governmentís slippery record; and given the way Lord Hutton fine-tuned his earlier inquiry to such a narrow extent as to leave Geoff Hoon and the Ministry of Defence virtually blameless in the tragic case of Dr David Kelly, while ensuring that the leadership of the BBC got the sack. Yet it is hard to condemn Mr Howard for trying to be constructive when it came to what was supposed to be a fact-finding exercise. On the other hand, the Lib Demsí refusal to be involved with Butler was premised on pure opportunism. In this regard, it is worth noting that the Lib Dems devoted their criticism last night to attacking Mr Howard for his belated withdrawal rather than to censoring Lord Butler for his narrow interpretation of his brief.

Mr Howard says the inquiry should give equal weight to the actions of individuals and not just structures. He is right. If his judgment is to be called into question, it is in not getting a clearer written statement from Downing Street clarifying the brief prior to Lord Butlerís appointment. Meantime, Mr Blair is defending the narrow interpretation of Lord Butlerís brief on the grounds that any judgment on whether or not military action was justified in Iraq is one for politicians and Parliament. That is true, but it still remains a pertinent question for the inquiry to ask if Parliament was misled in forming its judgment, either by design or incompetence. That is why Butler must be free to assess the role of named individuals.

Mr Blairís manoeuvres have now rebounded on him. The very thing the Butler Inquiry was aimed at - allowing government to return to long-neglected domestic matters - will not now be achieved. Lord Butlerís legal myopia has now ensured a divisive inquiry and another long summer during which British politics will remain mired in "who did what" in Iraq in 2002 and 2003.

Some who opposed the war will doubtless be happy at this state of affairs, but it is hardly going to help towards reconstruction in Iraq today, or resolving the many domestic problems that Britain now faces.