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On The Scene

Analysis: Blair's uphill struggle

By Robin Oakley
CNN European Political Editor

Oakley
CNN's Robin Oakley reporting from the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- This was an almost unprecedented appearance by a British prime minister before a public inquiry.

Weapons expert David Kelly, whose apparent suicide sparked the inquiry, was a source for a BBC story that accused the British government of "sexing up" a September 2002 dossier on Iraq's weapons.

This morning, we discovered from Tony Blair just how strongly he felt about the BBC report, which suggested the British government had inserted into the dossier the fact that Saddam Hussein could deploy chemical and biological weapons at 45 minutes notice.

In addition, the BBC report suggested the government had done so against the wishes of the intelligence community and knowing the claim to be wrong.

Blair told the inquiry the allegation was something that struck at the heart of the office of prime minister and the way the intelligence services do their job.

If it had been true, he said, it would have merited his resignation. That is why he felt so strongly about it and why he has fought so bitterly against the BBC.

The other areas of key questioning Thursday involved the role of the government and Blair in pushing Kelly into the public domain after he confessed to being a source for the BBC story.

His subsequent grilling by a House of Commons select committee was apparently the kind of pressure Kelly could not live with.

Blair said once Kelly's name was known to a few people, it was bound to come out in the end.

He said was happy to live by the decisions he had taken as prime minister -- he didn't shirk responsibility for pushing Kelly out to face that grilling.

He said he had to do that because if he had not done so, he would have been accused of a cover-up. Essentially, he had been playing it by the book, he said.

The third main area of questioning was about the compilation of the dossier. Blair defended the way his communications director Alastair Campbell had worked with the intelligence chief to strengthen the language of the dossier about Saddam's weapons.

That was perfectly legitimate, Blair said, so long as the intelligence services kept control of that dossier, and they did, he said.

Blair and his government have been badly damaged by this ongoing row about the arms dossier and the Kelly affair.

Two-thirds of people in opinion polls now say they find the government untrustworthy, and two-thirds of people -- despite all the denials at the Hutton inquiry -- believe that the government did embellish the weapons dossier.

So it is going to take more than one successful appearance before the inquiry by Tony Blair to restore that public confidence and trust.

And meanwhile, Blair's government has been derailed from almost anything else it was trying to do.

A big campaign this summer to back eventual British entry into the euro has completely disappeared from sight -- an example of the kind of problems this affair has posed for Tony Blair.


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