News Analysis: Butler fall-out is lasting for Blair

A lesson to be learnt from Butler is that government should be honest when communicating sensitive information, says The Sunday Times political editor.

In Kill Bill Volume II the heroine, played by Uma Thurman, finally dispenses with the villain of the title with a nifty piece of karate called the 'five-point palm exploding-heart technique'.

It involves a few swipes and chops to the left side of the chest, but does not result in instant death. The victim merely feels a bit out of breath and, provided they remain in a sedentary position, all usual bodily functions continue. It is only when they stand up and walk five paces that their heart explodes, resulting in death.

A Downing Street adviser reminded me of this final scene in the Quentin Tarantino movie last week when we got chatting about the Butler Report.

Tony Blair had survived Hutton - now it was a question of whether Butler was going to inflict a slow burner for the Prime Minister. 'Kill Tony, Volume II', as it were.

The point was that the real test of the report - which proved beyond doubt that Blair passed off 'sporadic and patchy' intelligence of Saddam Hussein's weapons as 'detailed, extensive and authoritative' - was not whether the PM was off the hook today, but whether it would prove lethal in the months to come.

Would the lack of trust in Blair have ebbed to such a point that whatever he tried to do - on public services, for example - he would be unconvincing and ultimately become an electoral liability?

In PR terms, the headline may well have been 'Blair cleared', but the fine print of the Butler Report was so devastatingly revealing about the PM's character that in the long run, he will probably never be trusted again.

Hard times for Blair?

As the by-elections in Leicester South and Birmingham Hodge Hill, and a telling opinion poll in The Sunday Times last weekend showed, Blair is suffering. But Tory leader Michael Howard is not capitalising on the Prime Minister's woes. The Sunday Times survey found that nearly half of voters, 46 per cent, believe Blair deliberately distorted intelligence about Iraq's weapons, and that almost two thirds would not trust him to take the country to war again.

And yet the electorate has not warmed to Howard at all: most think it would make little difference if Blair was replaced and, in contrast, the Prime Minister is still seen, albeit marginally, as a better leader than Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.

As one exasperated Tory official sobbed into his beer late last week: 'All this stuff about lack of trust in Blair doesn't really matter - at the end of the day, the voters may not respect him, but they still easily prefer him to lead the country.'

So what are the lessons to be drawn for political PROs? Does this mean that, as long as you have the best spin doctors, you can see out any crisis that is thrown at you? And what lessons can be learned for how government communicates sensitive intelligence material in future?

The answer for government app-ears to be simple: don't try to 'sell' intelligence again. It was unprecedented for Britain to launch a pre-emptive war on the basis of mere intelligence - what turned out to be mere 'Chinese whispers', as Lord Butler called them - and it will never be allowed to happen again.

Few would disagree with Howard, who made the point that the public should have been convinced of the case for war on the more solid grounds that it was right to get rid of Saddam because he was in repeated breach of numerous UN resolutions.

Lessons should also be drawn from Alastair Campbell's flawed dossiers.

The technique of pulling intelligence together in this way was pioneered in Afghanistan when the coalition wanted to bolster the case for war against an oppressive regime that was harbouring Osama Bin Laden. But, in that case, the link between 9/11 and al-Qaeda was clear, as was the case for removing the Taliban. The mistake was to try the trick again over Iraq. Campbell did it twice. And, whatever he says, the Butler Report did prove that the dossier of September 2002 was sexed up, intentionally or not.

I was one of the recipients of the later, February 2003 document, the so-called 'dodgy dossier'. Along with a handful of my Sunday newspaper colleagues, it was pushed under my hotel room door in Washington during one of the Blair/Bush summits.

Fortunately, none of us were fooled enough by it to put it on the front page the following Sunday - it was obviously thin.

The best line I recall was that Saddam was burying his weapons far under the sand and employing glorified treasure-trove detectors to make sure they were out of range of the UN inspectors. Wonderfully unprovable.

The truth will out

The best lesson, which all good PROs know anyway, is to never lie - or at least to prevent being found out. At the weekend, Howard said that had he known then what he knows now, he would not have voted for the war and would instead have been honest with the public about the caveats in the MI6 reports that were coming in.

He made a good, albeit opportunistic, point. The public should be trusted to understand that intelligence gathering is never going to be a science in a country like Iraq where British agents had been cut back severely in the 1990s.

There were much better reasons for going to war, such as Saddam's intentions to reconstruct a weapons programme, his breach of UN resolutions, the genocide of his own people, and the deterrent to other 'axis of evil' nations.

But will the details of the Butler Report still be inflicting damage to Blair in a few months' time? I doubt it. How many members of the Westminster village and public affairs profession - let alone the voters - actually read the fine print of the report?

It even took Howard and his aides an hour or so to get to page 81 (the smoking-gun bit). I guess you could count the number of those who read it all on the fingers of, well, a single palm.

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