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Scotland on Sunday   July 20 2003
Does the PM have blood on his hands?

IT MAY come to be seen as the defining moment of his premiership.

With the brutal questions: "Have you got blood on your hands, Prime Minister? Are you going to resign?" hanging in the air, Tony Blair appears to freeze in front of the worldís cameras.

His face ashen, the man who is supposedly never flustered by the media simply stares into space, silent, exhausted, apparently beaten.

For journalists used to an effortlessly relaxed, urbane public style, it is a shocking sight, all the more stark when compared with Blairís rapturous reception in front of the US Congress only two days earlier.

After several seconds, which feel like an eternity, the Prime Minister is eventually saved at this press conference in the Japanese spa resort of Hakone by an intervention from his hosts. But the damage has been done.

No one can be in any doubt now as to how deeply rocked Blairís administration has been by the death of Dr David Kelly, respected scientist, alleged "mole" and now apparent suicide victim.

Following the discovery of the body of Kelly, the scientist whom Downing Street had fingered as the source who told the BBC that No 10 had "sexed up" its dossier on Iraqís weapons of mass destruction, the governmentís survival was at stake. How Blair reacted in the five days of his Asian tour would be crucial.

Alastair Campbell, who masterminded the ferocity of the inquiry into the BBCís story and its source, had returned to London on Thursday following Blairís victorious address to Congress. They spoke when the Prime Minister arrived at the New Otani Hotel in Tokyo, and agreed the fight-back strategy: reserve the right to stay silent.

All questions were to be stonewalled, on the logical grounds that any comment would prejudice the judicial inquiry set to be announced by the Ministry of Defence.

The inquiry was to be moulded into a shield, protecting Blair. While this would buy breathing time, there had to be a holding statement. The Prime Minister delivered it by summoning a lone reporter to his hotel room at 10am yesterday.

"Iím going to make a short statement and I donít intend to say anything more about this issue," he said.

He said it was a "terrible tragedy" that a "fine public servant who did an immense amount of good for his country" had died. And that was it.

"I hope we can set aside the speculation and the claims and the counter-claims and allow that due process to take its proper course. And in the meantime all of us, the politicians and the media alike, should show some respect and restraint."

The statement threw up scores of questions which were fired at Godric Smith, Blairís official spokesman, later in the morning. Respect and restraint for whom? Campbell? Are "politicians and the media" being asked not to intrude on private government grief?

The first appointment of the day was a speech to Japanese businessmen and Blair had worked out a strong address on the euro. But by 11am - 3am British time - he had lost the appetite to read it.

The next task was a problem. The Prime Minister was due to visit a newly opened Pizza Express in Tokyo, then be photographed making his own pizza which was then to be auctioned for charity.

But back home, the body of Kelly was in the process of being identified. This was not the time for Blair to be photographed sprinkling pepperoni on fast food. After lunch, the events switched to the lakeside resort of Hakone, home to the favourite hotel of Junichiro Koizumi, Japanís Prime Minister, in an area of volcanic activity and hot spring baths.

Blair and Koizumi were driven there in a motorcade and started talks. Cherie Blair was taken away with a separate party brought in for such occasions, as there isnít a Mrs Koizumi.

On a clear day, Mount Fuji can be seen from Hakone. But both politically and meteorologically, it was not a clear day. The sun had disappeared and the lake had started to become choppy when Blair arrived to give his press conference at 7.20pm.

The communiques released by the Japanese authorities before he turned up suddenly seem risibly irrelevant. The two countries were to "work together as e-nations" and forge a "science and technology partnership", they said.

The real issue is whether Blair is going to resign. Large speakers in the room amplified the deep sighs at the end of every Blair statement. One eye was visibly moist and journalists present wondered whether he could handle any more questions without breaking down, or openly crying.

It didnít take long for the questions to surface. Does he have Kellyís death on his conscience? "I entirely understand why you want me to elaborate on what I said this morning, but let me repeat it." Cue the line about "respect and restraint".

Normally, Blair would look comfortable when using this stonewall. But here, his voice was faltering. He looked a wreck. Has Geoff Hoon offered to resign? "Well, as Iíve said, I understand why you would like me to go into what Iíve said already, but Iím not going to."

But surely Hoonís resignation has nothing to do with Kelly? No answer. Question time over. Then came the coup de theatre, the coarsely called-out, yes or no, blood-on-your-hands and resignation questions.

On live television, on the world stage and on his flagship trip to Asia, Blair was directly linked to Kellyís suicide.

Worst of all, these were the very questions on the minds of many of the public back home. Afterwards, the picture that remained was one of a Prime Minister overcome by fear and distress. If the Japanese had doubts about the mortal danger which their guestís political career was in, they have been dispelled.

Questions remain

The Hutton inquiry will have to find answers to a series of questions that neither the government nor the BBC have been willing or able to provide so far.

Did David Kelly really volunteer the information that he may have been the source for Andrew Gilliganís story alleging that the Iraq dossier was "sexed up"?

The official line says Kelly came forward to his boss, who alerted the most senior figures at the MoD. But insiders maintain that he had been under surveillance for some time, perhaps because a colleague reported his interest in the Gilligan story.

Was he put under any pressure to come forward?

The MoD mole hunt was extensive and staff have reported that many colleagues came under scrutiny. It has been claimed that Kellyís electronic organiser was "rifled through" in an attempt to gain evidence that he had met Gilligan, pictured.

Why wasn't his name kept secret? Who released it?
The most important question. Kelly is believed to have been extremely keen to keep his name out of the public domain, and agreed to a statement announcing that "a civil servant" had admitted to meeting Gilligan. But his name then appeared in three newspapers.