Matthew Parris

Blair is not guilty of mendacity but of weakness and poor judgment

Blair is not guilty of mendacity but of weakness and poor judgment

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Swimmers, scanning the sea for signs of danger, look beyond what breaks the surface. It is by the slight but unexpected troubling of the waters that hidden peril is often best located. Where something jagged lurks beneath or where two currents collide, a sudden agitated choppiness in a small patch of sea may tell us more than the great, regular rollers which we know how to breast.

Most people seem to think that as regards the David Kelly affair, the Prime Minister himself is out of the roughest water; that Lord Hutton’s evidence-taking has somehow ‘cleared’ Downing Street — or at least that lesser figures are conveniently placed to take the rap. I too expect Mr Blair to escape. But a curious perturbation on the media waves last Sunday morning should have reminded us how tricky the position remains for him, and how much logic-chopping and evasion may lie in store early next year, before we finally tire of the story and (as Mr Blair regularly urges us) ‘move on’.

On his regular Jonathan Dimbleby programme on LWT, a rather well-armed Mr Dimbleby was interviewing the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon. Dimbleby had been studying the evidence offered quite recently by the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, Sir Kevin Tebbit, in his second evidence-giving — an episode completely overshadowed by the Conservative party’s latest ructions.

Dimbleby turned to the way in which Dr Kelly’s name had reached the press. You will recall that immediately after Kelly’s death a Daily Mail journalist asked Tony Blair, on an aeroplane, whether the decision to ‘out’ the scientist had been his. No, replied Mr Blair. In that case, asked the journalist, had he authorised the decision? ‘Emphatically not’, replied the Prime Minister.

The decision to ‘out’ Kelly was what Dimbleby wanted to discuss with Mr Hoon. We could do worse than simply read the transcript:

Jonathan Dimbleby: Can you confirm that the so-called policy decision which authorised the conditions under which the Ministry of Defence would confirm or give out the name of Dr David Kelly to journalists, those specific circumstances, was taken at a meeting at which you were not present but was chaired by the Prime Minister on 8 July?

Hoon at first declined to enter this discussion, but Dimbleby persisted.

JD: I’m just asking whether you share the view expressed by your permanent secretary Kevin Tebbit, at the inquiry, when he said that the policy decision was taken at that meeting which was chaired by the Prime Minister. Is that your understanding?

Hoon said this was misleading, and added, ‘There was no policy decision in the way you suggest.’

JD: I’m only quoting Sir Kevin Tebbit. He says, ‘A policy decision on the handling of this matter had not been taken until the Prime Minister’s meeting on the Tuesday.’ That’s the 8th ‘...and it was only after that that any of the press people in the Ministry of Defence had an authority to base this on which to proceed, the decision was taken at a meeting in No. 10 with which the Ministry of Defence concurred.’ Is that true?

Geoff Hoon: The policy decision that he was referring to in his evidence was the policy decision to tell people that someone in the Ministry of Defence had come forward who had had an unauthorised contact with a journalist; that was the policy decision to which he was referring.

JD: Forgive me, that is not the case, at that point it was specifically, he was answering the questions specifically, in the context of whether or not, or how the questions and answers briefing which would allow a Ministry of Defence press officer to say.

GH: That is quite wrong, I’m sorry, I was there, I’d given evidence.

Mr Hoon then repeated his first answer. Mr Dimbleby put it to him that what Sir Kevin told the Hutton inquiry recently was directly at odds with Hoon’s insistence (and, implicitly, the Prime Minister’s airborne insistence) that the ‘outing’ policy had not been decided at the meeting attended by Mr Blair. Hoon refused to return to this issue; Dimbleby persisted for some time, but finally had to give up and move on.

But Mr Dimbleby’s characterisation of Sir Kevin’s evidence is irreproachable: I have checked the transcript. Discussing the naming strategy, Tebbit makes it quite clear that it represented a change in stance: ‘The change in stance,’ he told the inquiry, ‘was a decision taken by a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister.’

My clear impression, then, is that Hoon was trying to protect Blair by denying that the meeting was of the nature characterised (to Hutton) by his own permanent secretary.

How much does any of this matter? I do not myself think that the aim of the ‘policy’ — to name Dr Kelly — was wrong. I see no conclusive argument for protecting his identity. Nor do I think the manner in which his name was released was wicked; it was just remarkably silly — Alastair Campbell at his worst. Nor am I comfortable with the idea that it should now fall to an unelected judge to adjudicate what ought to be settled through the ordinary process of democratic politics. Nor do I think that even if Lord Hutton must adjudicate, it would be within his remit to censure the Prime Minister for misleading journalists on an aeroplane, if that is what Mr Blair did.

And if that is what Mr Blair did (and the scenario which follows is hypothetical), then I question those hotheads who speak as though a man in his position would think ‘I did, of course, authorise precisely this policy — and at a meeting witnessed by many — but I am going to tell these journalists a barefaced lie, and hope the truth never comes to light.’

No, Mr Blair, who (in this scenario) will have been exhausted and anxious, will have had a fuzzy recollection of some kind of the discussion (he attends hundreds) at which he was possibly party (at least by silence) to the idea that Dr Kelly’s name should somehow be got out; and thinking that Alastair would no doubt see to it. ‘But I never meant it to turn out like this,’ he will have thought, in panic, on the plane — and surely he never did.

His instinct will have been what Mr Blair’s instinct has always — all through this wretched war — seemed to be when in corners like this: to say whatever seems best calculated to win the moment. And within minutes of his saying it, there will have been senior journalists in London who will have recalled the part played by Downing Street in the naming of Dr Kelly, and known that Mr Blair ought to be pressed very hard indeed on this.

But not by a judge, I think — by them. And not for alleged wickedness or downright mendacity, but for weakness, evasion and poor judgment. These are the high-water marks of his culpability. Lord Hutton’s inquiry will pin no more on him than Jonathan Dimbleby’s interview last Sunday did. Both will leave another faint stain: no less, no more.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.