Tony Blair was forced on to the defensive yesterday when he admitted that he would have to resign as prime minister if he lied to parliament over his role in the outing of the government scientist, Dr David Kelly.
As Lord Hutton warned Britain's political classes against jumping to conclusions ahead of the publication of his report, the prime minister said he 'of course' accepted that ministers who misled MPs had to quit.
Mr Blair's remarks came after Michael Howard all but accused the prime minister of lying days after the death of Dr Kelly. In their first Commons clash of the new year, Mr Howard asked Mr Blair whether he stood by his statement of July 22, made on board a flight from Shanghai to Hong Kong, that he had 'emphatically' not leaked the name of Dr Kelly.
Mr Howard believes the prime minister's declaration may be highly damaging after Sir Kevin Tebbit, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, told the inquiry in October that Mr Blair chaired the key meetings during the 'naming strategy' - the convoluted process which led to the confirmation of the scientist's name. 'Either the permanent secretary or the prime minister is not telling the truth,' Mr Howard said.
Before everyone races to congratulate Tony Blair for this principled stand, I have to say I'll believe it when I see it. My guess is that this means only that Blair will continue to insist he told the truth no matter what evidence is piled up against him.
The Iraq Survey Group is being wound down. It has produced nothing except the interesting theory that ambitions, not weapons, of mass destruction, justify war. Blair's statements to parliament are already exposed as untrue. Expect lots of 'I believed at the time' or 'I don't have a reverse gear'. Do not expect 'Your majesty, I must resign my commission'.
The only thing that will change this is a clear and unambiguous finding by the Hutton inquiry. The Blair government has always denied an al-Qaiida/Saddam link so that issue is not in play. Note the standard of proof for whether the prime minister misled the house seems to be a lot more rigorous than the standard of proof for the actual existence of WMDs.