ANY hope Tony Blair may have had that “closure” was near on the vexed question of weapons of mass destruction and the justification for war against Iraq must have evaporated in the course of yesterday's political developments. Events in and around Whitehall were sensational enough, but they were topped in mid-afternoon when the Director of the CIA, George Tenet, was seen live on TV from Washington defending the reputation of his organisation. His startling opening statement that the CIA had never said the threat from Iraq was “imminent” will have sent shock waves across the Atlantic on a day that everything seemed to go wrong for the Government.

The Prime Minister's admission, that he had not known the now discredited dossier claim that Iraq could launch WMD missiles in 45-minutes referred only to battlefield weapons, was bad enough. Geoff Hoon's attempts to defend this astonishing revelation about a claim that had been central to the government's case for war made matters worse. On BBC radio's Today programme he argued that when the 45-minutes claim was first made in the September 2002 dossier it had attracted very little attention. Reminded that the Sun newspaper (readership around five million) had run a headline “45 minutes from doom”, he said that he hadn't seen it or heard of it until he saw it reproduced in the recent BBC Panorama programme. After Mr Hoon left the radio studio the Today programme did some quick research and found in the Hutton report that Hoon had told Lord Hutton that he recalled seeing the Sun report.

More important than the Defence Secretary's hapless performance was the statement from Michael Howard that the Prime Minister should consider resigning for what amounted to “a grave dereliction of duty” in failing to ask what kind of weapons were covered in the dossier's 45-minutes claim. He pointed out that Robin Cook knew the claim referred only to battlefield weapons because he had taken the trouble to find this out from the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Why had Mr Blair not taken the same trouble to discover the facts before he sent troops to war? The defence offered by No 10 yesterday was that in his key speech to the House of Commons on 18 March, asking for its approval of war against Iraq, he had not mentioned the 45-minutes claim. That is true, but in that speech he made several references to the growing threat from Saddam Hussein because of the increased reach of his long-range weapons. In the September dossier the 45-minutes claim is in the same section as paragraphs about long-range weapons and is accompanied by a map which shows Britain's Cyprus bases as being within reach of such weapons. The inference was clear - and it was never corrected or clarified.

IT is remarkable that the Prime Minister should have been so exercised about Andrew Gilligan's mistake over the 45-minute claim, yet remains so relaxed about his own failure to do his homework on the same issue. Whose offence is the greater? Tony Blair insisted on an apology from the BBC; Parliament should at least insist on an apology from the Prime Minister. Is Mr Howard right to say that he should resign? There is certainly a case to be made. Either Mr Blair was careless at a time that he should have been on maximum alert, in that he failed to ask a vitally important question about the kind of war that he was getting Britain into. Or - and this would be even worse - he asked the question but decided to suppress the answer he was given because it would weaken his case for the war.


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