Pressure on Blair to sack Kelly row spinner
TONY Blair was under intense pressure last night to clear out the culture of spin rife through the government by sacking the Downing Street official at the centre of an attempt to smear Dr David Kelly.
In a new low for the No 10 press operation, Tom Kelly, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, was forced to apologise after admitting he had compared Dr Kelly to a "Walter Mitty"-type character.
John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, wrote a personal letter of apology to Janice Kelly, the widow of Dr Kelly, whose funeral takes place today.
But MPs and friends of the Ministry of Defence scientist - who took his own life after becoming embroiled in the Iraq dossier row - said apologies were insufficient and Mr Blair should fire his spokesman if he did not have the dignity to resign.
The Prime Minister is on a family holiday in Barbados but has been kept informed of the major development in the crisis he cannot shake off.
Glenda Jackson, the Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate, said: "I don’t think he [Tom Kelly] should be afforded the luxury of resigning. I think he should be sacked.
"No 10’s capacity to disgust us would seem positively boundless.
"We are in a situation where a man has lost his life, his family has been deprived of a husband and father, and it would seem that No 10 is determined to take away his reputation. They are unspeakable."
Professor Alastair Hay, a close friend of Dr Kelly, said that the remarks were "heartless in the extreme" and "deeply shaming".
Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "It is time to abandon the whole culture of spin and off-the-record briefings.
"We need a new atmosphere of openness and transparency if the political system is to regain public trust."
Mr Prescott’s unprecedented public apology followed a day of chaos at Downing Street, which at first tried to distance itself from the slur by originally claiming nobody in No 10 could have said such a thing.
In his statement yesterday, Mr Kelly said he apologised unreservedly for the remarks which were made in a conversation with Paul Waugh, the deputy political editor of the Independent newspaper, about the direction of Lord Hutton’s inquiry into the death of Dr Kelly - the primary source of a BBC report that No 10 exaggerated intelligence reports on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
He said: "I deeply regret, therefore, that what I thought was a private conversation with a journalist last week has led to further public controversy. That was not my intention, nor, most emphatically, was I signalling a government strategy aimed at discrediting Dr Kelly."
Mr Kelly confirmed he had compared the Oxford-educated weapons expert to the fictional fantasist Walter Mitty but insisted it was not a "definitive statement of my view or that of the government".
The statement continued: "We were discussing questions, not answers. I now recognise that even that limited form of communication was a mistake given the current climate.
"I therefore unreservedly apologise to Dr Kelly’s widow and her family for having intruded on their grief."
Mr Kelly’s actions are a huge embarrassment for Mr Blair ahead of the Hutton inquiry, which resumes next week and will raise further questions about the extent of the politicisation of the civil service under New Labour.
Although Mr Blair and Alastair Campbell, his director of communications, were on holiday when Mr Kelly spoke to the journalist, it is still not clear whether the attempt to smear the weapons expert was authorised by No 10.
Questions remain as to why Downing Street denied Mr Kelly was responsible for the remarks and why he appeared so willing to ignore demands from Mr Blair for a period of "respect and restraint" before the inquiry.
In a move which will provide some comfort to Dr Kelly’s family, Lord Hutton yesterday said he had accepted their wish for the hearing not to be televised.
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