Tue, Feb 03, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Too complete a victory for Tony Blair

He has been victorious and the BBC has been vanquished, yet the British prime minister is all too aware that there is still a war to win

By Andrew Rawnsley  /  THE OBSERVER , London


Gavyn Davies: gone. Greg Dyke: gone. Andrew Gilligan: gone. Michael Howard's (the newish opposition Conservative party leader) honeymoon: over. The plots of backbench malcontents to topple him: scotched. The hopes of allies of Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown that their hero might be in No. 10 before the next election: dashed.

Prime Minister Tony Blair: still there. According to the headlines of a few days ago this was going to be the week that could finish Britain's prime minister. At best, so it was widely forecast, his authority and credibility would be irretrievably devastated by the verdict of Lord Hutton. At worst, such were the predictions from those who forgot that judicial inquiries in Britain virtually never lead to any political resignations, the Law Lord would be the prime minister's nemesis.

Once again, predictions of Blair's imminent demise have proved to be exaggerated. Heads have rolled, but not the prime minister's.

His triumphant face remains firmly attached to his neck. Once again, he has prevailed against apparently daunting odds. As icing on his victory cake, even former Cabinet minister Clare Short says she will give up calling for him to go since no one's listening. Once again, Tony is Teflon.

Well, up to a point. I reported a while ago that Blair has been confident for some months that he would be exonerated on the lethal charge that he lied, but No. 10 was, nevertheless, braced for at least some criticism of the government from the judge. It thought it was particularly exposed about the manner in which David Kelly came to be outed.

So when it finally got its clammy hands on the Law Lord's report last Tuesday lunchtime, Downing Street reacted to its contents with almost as much disbelief as BBC executives.

While Alastair Campbell took over his old room in Downing Street to go through the report with one team of officials, Blair and senior aides devoured it in the Cabinet room. As they began to go through the report, they were, in the words of one of the prime minister's aides, "gobsmacked" at how comprehensively Hutton had cleared the government of every charge against it.

"Yes, you can say it came as a pleasant surprise," one official at No. 10 laughingly understates the gales of relief that gusted through Downing Street.

Says another close ally of Blair: "I always thought it was going to be either two-nil to us or a one-all draw with the BBC. As it turned out, of the 15 questions asked, it was 14 and a half to us."

A massive No. 10 operation was poised to spin up findings that suited the government and spin down any judgments that were discomforting. Instead, they found themselves searching for any criticism of Downing Street or government departments at all. At every twist and turn of all the many convolutions of the Kelly affair, the Law Lord found for the politicians, the civil servants and the intelligence chiefs while being comprehensively unforgiving of the mistakes made by the BBC.

The verdict of Hutton provided the inhabitants of No. 10 with the great satisfaction of watching the corporation being forced to report its own mauling on every outlet. For Blair, the most important target was not the BBC, but the Tories.

Hutton gave him the opportunity to execute a parliamentary crushing of Conservative leader Michael Howard.

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