THE controversial strategy to name Dr David Kelly, the weapons expert who took his own life, was decided at a meeting chaired by Tony Blair, it was disclosed yesterday.
The Prime Minister had largely escaped criticism during the Hutton Inquiry, but was exposed during the last day of the hearing as being culpable of agreeing a strategy to identify Dr Kelly.
Lord Hutton said last night it was now unlikely his report into Dr Kelly’s death would be ready for publication until January, leaving question marks hanging over Mr Blair’s involvement until after the New Year.
He has already been attacked on the issue by Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory leader, who risked political ignominy last week by using his keynote party conference address to criticise Mr Blair’s role in naming the weapons expert.
Sir Kevin Tebbit, the most senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, said the decision to confirm Dr Kelly’s name to any journalist who independently came up with it was taken at Downing Street.
But he vehemently denied there had been a "devious strategy" to ensure Dr Kelly’s identity became public in the government’s battle with the BBC over claims it doctored intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Sir Kevin gave evidence yesterday at a special one-off hearing of the inquiry after his scheduled cross-examination last month had to be postponed due to ill health.
His revelation about Mr Blair’s intimate involvement in decisions which are expected to be criticised by Lord Hutton was not the first time Sir Kevin had dropped members of the government in trouble.
During his first appearance before the inquiry, Sir Kevin made it plain he had initially not wanted Dr Kelly to appear before a parliamentary committee of MPs in public - but that Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, had overruled him.
Sir Kevin yesterday confirmed he had not been at the meeting at No 10 on 8 July at which the naming decision was taken - but said the MoD had "concurred" with it.
Pressed by Jeremy Gompertz, QC, the counsel for the Kelly family, on who decided the new approach, Sir Kevin said: "The change in stance, as you put it, was decided at a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister."
Pushed further by Mr Gompertz, he added: "The decision was taken at a meeting in No 10, with which the MoD concurred."
Sir Kevin denied there had been a campaign to smear Dr Kelly, but came unstuck when Mr Gompertz asked him about a conversation he had with a BBC journalist in which he described the weapons expert as being "a bit odd" the day before he killed himself on 17 July.
He appeared to compound the matter when he admitted to telling the reporter Dr Kelly had been "off his head".
The inquiry heard how Sir Kevin found himself talking to James Robbins, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, at a reception hosted in London by the Italian ambassador.
Mr Robbins later told his bosses that the civil servant had described Dr Kelly to him as "unreliable" and "eccentric" and had circled his finger by his forehead in a clear attempt to express his opinion of him.
Sir Kevin, who appeared shocked that the details of his private conversation about Dr Kelly had been aired at the inquiry, denied several times his remarks had been intended as a smear.
He said: "My light comment was that anybody who talked to [BBC journalist] Andrew Gilligan in those circumstances is off their head."
Sir Kevin denied a suggestion made by Mr Gompertz that his remarks had been designed to "belittle" Dr Kelly. He added: "I volunteered that David Kelly was a bit weird and rather eccentric. It was not intended as a smear. It was in the context of ‘why would anybody do this?’.
"It was not my considered view of Dr Kelly. Had it been my considered view I would not have agreed that he should go on to pursue his career in Iraq."
The inquiry also heard from Sir Kevin that there had been no threat to Dr Kelly’s pension or his security clearance - a claim made by at least one witness during the six-week inquiry held at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
He said: "The fact is that he was not in a double jeopardy of that kind. There was absolutely no question, as far as I was concerned, of his security clearance being withdrawn or his pension. I was aware that plans were going on for him to go to Iraq."
Mr Gompertz also asked Sir Kevin to explain comments recorded in diaries kept by Alastair Campbell, the former director of communications at Downing Street, where the civil servant had told him Dr Kelly was "a show off". Sir Kevin said: "I do not believe I used those words."
The inquiry yesterday spent a considerable amount of time going over the processes which led to Dr Kelly being named.
Sir Kevin insisted that the weapons expert had been handled "extremely carefully and considerately throughout" after he volunteered the information that he had met Mr Gilligan, the BBC journalist who claimed the Iraq dossier had been "sexed up". But he said ministers and officials believed they were "sitting on what we felt was a ticking bomb" the longer they kept secret his admission.
He said Dr Kelly had always known it was likely his identity would become public and, contrary to evidence given by the weapons expert’s widow, Sir Kevin said there was never an agreement to guarantee Dr Kelly anonymity.
Yesterday’s hearing concluded the evidence-taking stages of the Inquiry, Lord Hutton will report in the new year.
Hutton report is delayed until January
THE Hutton Inquiry concluded its evidence-taking stages yesterday after a delay of two weeks due to Sir Kevin Tebbit’s ill health. Lord Hutton will now retire to consider all the oral and written evidence given to the inquiry which was held over six weeks at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
The inquiry is likely to have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds, but unlike other major, high-profile inquiries, it concluded swiftly. Lord Hutton said yesterday it was now unlikely his report would be ready for publication until January. He had previously indicated it would be complete by December at the latest.