When Tony Blair's motorcade swept into the Royal Courts of Justice last Thursday morning, he knew he faced a more searing spotlight than any he'd stared down before. The Hutton Inquiry into the apparent suicide of biochemical-weapons expert David Kelly and the government's alleged dissembling on the road to war had already transfixed Britain for more than two weeks, and the Prime Minister's testimony was bound to be its climax. Clusters of antiwar protesters were ready with jeers, Pinocchio-style noses and placards reading weapon of mass destruction: b.liar. Blair emerged into that maelstrom from a black Range Rover wearing a dark blue suit, a businesslike burgundy tie and a tight smile. Just before he slipped inside the building, he gave the slightest glance to the phalanx of photographers and cameramen, as if to say to them and the rest of the world: I know you're watching. And I'm ready.
He was. In 21/2 hours of apparently frank testimony always thoughtful and reasoned, passionate when passion was called for Blair gave a masterful performance. In that lawyerly environment of "My Lords" and obsequious nods, Blair was a winner we can now believe that Downing Street did not knowingly mislead the public by inserting into a dossier the shaky claim that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. But though he won that battle, the larger war for public trust is not going so well. According to an ICM/Sunday Telegraph poll released prior to his testimony, 67% of Britons believe Blair's government misled them about Iraq's WMD. In a YouGov/Daily Telegraph poll, only 22% describe the government as "honest and trustworthy," down from 56% in 2001. And in what has become a monumental showdown between the government and the media, a TIME/CNN poll found that only 6% of Britons consider the government a more trustworthy source for facts about war than the BBC. On Friday, when Alastair Campbell, Blair's communications director and most trusted adviser, announced his long-rumored resignation, he left Blair in charge of a government whose relationship with the public was fundamentally and perhaps irrevocably broken.
The p.r. war is far from over. Lord Hutton will not issue his findings until October, but his inquiry has already laid bare the media-obsessed ways of Blair's government, opened a window into the secret world of the intelligence services, and raised vexing issues about leadership, transparency and trust. Now Blair faces the huge challenge of winning back his credibility without resorting anew to the spin tactics so identified with Campbell. To understand what Blair must do to reclaim his premiership, it's helpful to see how it all went wrong on the road to Iraq.
Last September, when the Prime Minister presented the intelligence dossier that included the claim that Iraq could unleash WMD within 45 minutes, the response was muted. Analysts shrugged, saying it contained little new information. As the war wound down and coalition forces searched in vain for WMD, Blair's repeated claims he called the threat "serious and current" became political tinder. That ignited when BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan alleged in late May that the government had released the dossier knowing that, according to "one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up that dossier," the 45-minute claim could be untrue. That source was believed to be Kelly, who was found dead on July 18.
Lord Hutton's official mandate is "to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly," who, in this strange saga, is the closest thing we have to an Everyman. He did his job, and he was good at it. Britain's premier expert on Iraq's weapons, he was a knowledgeable source for the government as well as the media, which frequently turned to him. But when the BBC ran its report (which Kelly later claimed misstated his views), and when Whitehall unleashed its ham-handed strategy of not naming Kelly, but giving hints and then confirming him as the alleged leaker, the scientist was thrown into a hostile arena. The stress of being handled as if he had a giant red S for source emblazoned on his chest apparently killed him. Some who watched this drama unfold couldn't help wondering: Is this what happens to good men who get caught up with the wrong crowd?