Blair to escape 'personal criticism' in Hutton

TONY Blair is expected to escape personal blame for the treatment of government scientist David Kelly when the Hutton report into his death is published this week, it was claimed last night.

The Prime Minister is understood not to have received a letter from Lord Hutton warning him of potential criticism when the report is published on Wednesday.

Other Hutton witnesses, including Blair’s former spin chief Alastair Campbell, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, BBC boss Greg Dyke and Andrew Gilligan, who reported the unauthorised briefing given by Kelly, are reported to have been sent "warning letters" by the judge.

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Senior Downing Street sources last night confirmed that Blair was not included on the judge’s final mailing list, and they claim that is a crucial signal that he will not be savaged in the report.

Hutton may still condemn elements of Blair’s style of government, including his use of intelligence in the build-up to war on Saddam Hussein, but the Prime Minister’s aides claim he cannot be blamed for the ‘outing’ of Kelly as the source for Gilligan’s controversial story about intelligence reports - a move seen as a crucial factor in the scientist’s decision to take his own life.

Blair himself admitted last night that his career was on the line as he entered the most critical week of his political life. The Hutton report will be published less than 24 hours after Blair faces a humiliating House of Commons defeat for his plans to allow universities to impose variable tuition fees of up to 3,000 on their students.

"I think in this job you spend the entire time at risk, so there is not a moment when you are not," he said.

On the Kelly crisis, and the shadow it cast over the case made for war on Iraq, the Prime Minister added: "The issue vis-a-vis my integrity is did we receive the intelligence and was it properly relayed to people? And I obviously believe that we did."

The avoidance of personal responsibility for any ill-treatment endured by Kelly would be a vital development for Blair as he struggles to defend his integrity and authority.

A poll published today claims that a majority of voters believe he should quit Downing Street if Hutton finds that he or his staff acted improperly over the naming of Kelly.

But one source close to the Prime Minister said: "It should not be a surprise that Tony has not had a letter from Hutton. Anyone who looks at the evidence cannot honestly claim that the PM did anything out of turn.

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"If the Tories are trying to say he has lied, I say just look at the facts, read the transcripts. Hutton himself didn’t call him back to give evidence a second time. He was satisfied."

The government sent Hutton a 100-page dossier, drawn up by the Treasury Solicitor, rebutting the draft charges levelled by the judge against ministers and officials at the Ministry of Defence, who are accused of failing in their duty of care to Kelly.

The dossier specifically defended Hoon against charges of inconsistencies in his evidence. Hoon consistently claimed he was not a party to any discussions about how Kelly’s name would be released to the media, although later evidence from staff suggested he was present at a key meeting that decided the "naming strategy".

Hutton now appears to have accepted that Blair could not be held personally responsible for any neglect or mistreatment. But Hoon’s position appears even less secure than it has since the Kelly crisis erupted.

Another sign that the Prime Minister had come through the most threatening period of his premiership came when it emerged the Tories were planning a final assault on Hoon in the days before the report is published. Tory leader Michael Howard had previously attempted to put Blair at the centre of the controversy over Kelly, but his staff now admit they have had to lower their sights and focus on Hoon’s role instead.