Blair says he would have quit if Iraq dossier was “sexed up”

29th August 2003

British Prime Minister Tony Blair put his personal credibility on the line yesterday over charges that his government exaggerated the case for war in Iraq, insisting he would have resigned if that had been true.

Blair told a judicial inquiry into the presumed suicide of government weapons expert David Kelly that a BBC story claiming that officials deliberately "sexed up" a dossier on Iraq's weapons was "extraordinary".

"If it were true it would have meant that we had behaved in the most digraceful way, and I would have had to resign as prime minister," Blair calmly told the hearing, headed by senior judge Lord Brian Hutton.

Blair used the near-unprecedented situation - a serving British prime minister being obliged to defend his government's honesty before a judge - to deliberately place himself at the centre of the storm over Kelly's death.

He said a decision to release Kelly's name to two parliamentary committees looking into the allegation - a process, which led to Kelly being publicly identified as the source for the controversial BBC story - was ultimately his.

"I take full responsibility for the decisions, I stand by them, I believe they were the right decisions," Blair told the hearing in a chamber of the Royal Courts of Justice in central London.

Kelly's body was found with a slit wrist in woodland near his home on July 18, two days after he gave evidence to the second committee.

Blair, who was greeted by several hundred demonstrators as he arrived for the hearing, described his reaction to being told about the central May 29 broadcast by Andrew Gilligan, a reporter for BBC radio's flagship public affairs show "Today".

Gilligan's most potent charge was that a British government dossier published last September to help Blair convince a skeptical public of the necessity for war in Iraq, had been "sexed up" with a claim that Baghdad could deploy chemical or biological weapons in just 45 minutes.

Blair was visiting British troops in Iraq at the time of the BBC broadcast, and said he was shocked at the slur on his reputation.

"It was an extraordinary allegation to make and an extremely serious one," he said.

Blair said his concern deepened when the Mail on Sunday newspaper carried an article by Gilligan suggesting that close aide and media strategist Alastair Campbell had doctored the intelligence in the dossier.

The use of Campbell's name meant the story was "no longer a small item", he said. "Ever since then that's been the issue, and here we are three months on and it is still the issue".

Dressed soberly in a dark suit, white shirt and plain tie, the Prime Minister was given a two hour-plus grilling by both Hutton and by the inquiry's senior counsel James Dingemans, who broke from usual judicial practice and refrained from asking Blair's name and profession.

"I do not think we need an introduction," Dingemans said.

Speaking calmly in the manner of the lawyer he was before becoming a politician, Blair made it abundantly clear that despite Kelly's death his conscience was largely clear.

Firstly, he insisted that the September dossier on Iraq's armaments had been written with full backing of intelligence chiefs, while also being as persuasive as possible.

"We were concerned that we could produce, within the bounds of what was proper and right, the best case," he said.

On the issue of Kelly's eventual identification as the source of Gilligan's story, Blair said that given the intense media and parliamentary interest in the issue, it was "very difficult" to decide on the right approach.

Blair argued that "with an issue with so much political focus as this... I think I would have thought there was a fair possibility it (Kelly's name) would leak in any event." The unusual way Kelly's identity was finally revealed by Ministry of Defence press officers - who confirmed his name to reporters who guessed it correctly - was seen as the best solution in the circumstances, if allegations of a cover-up were to be avoided.

"We were quite clear that the name was going to come out on one way or another... and Dr Kelly was aware of that too," he said. – Sapa.