British Prime Minister Tony Blair faces growing criticism over his decision to go to war in Iraq, despite being cleared by Lord Brian Hutton Jan. 28 of any wrongdoing in the events leading to the suicide of British weapons inspector David Kelly last year. Hutton, the law lord tasked with investigating Kelly’s death, concluded that the Blair government had not acted in a “dishonourable, underhand, or duplicitous” manner and that there was no conspiracy to “sex up” the dossier documenting Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). (See ACT, October 2003 and September 2003.)
Instead, Hutton focused his recriminations on the BBC and its reporter, Andrew Gilligan, who first made the accusation that the government had knowingly made a false claim that Iraq was prepared to use weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. Hutton concluded that Gillian’s reports were “unfounded” and criticized the BBC editorial process for allowing the accusations to be aired and for defending the reporter during the ensuing public row with the prime minister’s office.
The report threw the BBC into turmoil and appeared to provide a needed boost to Blair’s weakening political position. The day after the report was released, BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies resigned; Gilligan and Director General Gregg Dyke followed shortly thereafter. Blair demanded and received an apology from the BBC.
Rather than producing a political clean slate for Blair, however, the Hutton Report has provoked a backlash by political opponents and much of the British public. Many believe that Hutton was unfairly biased in favor of the government and placed too much blame on the BBC. Critics are also unhappy that Hutton did not address the larger question of whether the British government overstated the case against Iraq. Polls show Blair’s reputation deteriorating. The Independent newspaper reported Feb. 7 that 51 percent of those questioned believed Blair should resign and 54 percent thought Blair exaggerated the prewar threat from Iraq.
Following former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay’s admission that intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was wrong, Blair tasked ex-Cabinet Secretary Lord Robin Butler to lead a committee examining the quality of prewar intelligence. However, political opponents immediately criticized the structure and independence of the inquiry. Charles Kennedy, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrat party, refused to participate, arguing that the inquiry’s focus is too narrow. Others say that Butler, who has directly served five prime ministers, is too much of an insider. As stated by The Guardian newspaper, “He consistently showed deference to those in power.”
Blair’s troubles were compounded by his statement before a raucous session of Parliament Feb. 4, when he stated he did not know that the “45 minutes” claim referred only to battlefield munitions. Robin Cook, the former House of Commons leader who resigned in protest over the war, expressed skepticism over Blair’s statement, saying that he himself had been aware of the distinction at the time and he doubted Blair had not been informed. In later testimony before Parliament, Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon said that the 45 minutes claim had not been an issue in discussions about Iraq before the war.
Michael Howard, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, called on Blair to resign, saying he had failed to ask fundamental questions about Iraq’s weapons capabilities before deciding to go to war.