12 January 2004

One hour in 'The Den' that may seal Blair's fate

In the skies above Shanghai, at the centre of a scrum of reporters - some standing on seats to hold tape recorders in his face - Mr Blair was asked the crucial question: 'Why did you authorise the naming of David Kelly?'

'That is completely untrue,' snapped Mr Blair.

'Did you authorise anyone in Downing Street or in the Ministry of Defence to release David Kelly's name?' the reporter, Paul Eastham from the Daily Mail, persisted.

'Emphatically not,' Mr Blair said. 'I did not authorise the leaking of the name of David Kelly.'

It was, by any standards, a strong denial and one that kept the pack at bay. The search for how Dr Kelly's name entered the public domain moved from Mr Blair himself and towards the MoD, particularly Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Defence.

Last week, however, six months after that mid-air briefing, Mr Blair began to pay for his denial.

With the precision of the QC he is, Michael Howard has zeroed in on the evidence given to the Hutton inquiry by Sir Kevin Tebbit, the most senior civil servant in the MoD, in particular Sir Kevin's claim that the 'policy decision on the handling ... had not been taken until the PM's meeting of Tuesday [8 July]'.

Fairly soon, whether he wants to or not, Gordon Brown is going to find himself in Paul Keating's position in Hawke's last days - wondering if the government is about to bleed to death in parliament if he does not act.

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