Monday, 1 September 2003

The deceit over the dossier will be Blair's Watergate

The spinmaster has quit just in time - No 10's story is unravelling

The King of Spin is dead! Long live the King! Just 24 hours after Tony Blair emphasised his loyalty to Alastair Campbell, his closest adviser has resigned. The echoes of Watergate are deafening. Thirty years ago, Bob Haldeman, President Richard Nixon's spinmaster and closest confidant, resigned as the purge of Nixon's administration accelerated. Just days earlier, Nixon had praised Haldeman's integrity. Without Haldeman, insiders predicted, Nixon's days were numbered.
Four days ago, the positions of Blair and Campbell seemed so secure. The evidence of John Scarlett, the chairman of the joint intelligence committee, to the Hutton inquiry appeared to acquit Downing Street of any malfeasance. But the history of Watergate reveals that each victory is followed by a crushing reverse. And there was an eerie quality to Scarlett's defence of the government's conduct.

The old guard in the Kremlin would have been proud of him. Trim, assertive and eloquent, Scarlett applied more than a spy's tradecraft in his testimony. He proved to have been a keen student during his years as MI6's station chief in Moscow of the deft choreography of Stalin's show trials and the Kremlin's procedures for escapology.

In Stalin's era, successive intelligence chiefs accused of heinous crimes read their rehearsed scripts to the court, accepted the blame and pleaded guilty. Scarlett repeated an argument crafted in Downing Street to accept all the responsibility for a faulty government intelligence report but, in a diversion from Stalin's choreography, pleaded his innocence.

The public gasped while Scarlett dived back into the shadows. Having accomplished what Her Majesty's government required, one could practically hear the dapper intelligence officer murmur in true James Bond style, "Oh, what I do for England." Not for the first time in Britain's history, an MI6 officer had undertaken the dirty work to save a government from disaster.

In the aftermath, Blair and Campbell will have congratulated themselves that their critics' comparison of Iraqgate with Watergate had been torpedoed. In Blair's opinion, those who saw a parallel between Nixon's catastrophe and the sensation following Dr David Kelly's death have been trounced. But in private Blair must realise that his relief might be short-lived. "Iraqgate" is barely two months old - Watergate unfolded for two years before Nixon resigned in 1974 - and the comparisons are uncomfortable.

The Watergate crisis began in June 1972 with a botched operation by former intelligence officers to enter the Democratic party's headquarters, and was followed after their arrest by a calculated strategy to cover up the relationship between the White House and those who did the break-in. Tony Blair's Iraqgate started with a botched intelligence report - that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction which could be fired within 45 minutes - and a cover-up involving a diversionary attack against the BBC to avoid recrimination for that error.

Now consider a further comparison. As the investigation of Watergate by the media and the courts slowly unfolded, Nixon defiantly appeared on national television, an unusual event in that era, to plead that he was a man of utmost honesty and vehemently resented that the reputation of his most trusted adviser and spinmaster, Bob Haldeman, had been impugned. Soon after Haldeman resigned.

Similarly, Blair told the Hutton inquiry that a single BBC broadcast crucially challenged his integrity, threatening his continuation as prime minister, and emphasised that above all he resented the BBC's attack on Campbell, his most trusted adviser. Now Campbell has gone.

Finally, Nixon never imagined that he would eventually be trounced by his own secret recordings of conversations in the Oval Office and by a court order to publish top-secret government documents. When Blair's attack on the BBC was launched, his supporters ridiculed the suggestion that secret government documents and embarrassing emails would ever be unearthed, let alone publicised.

The hundreds of documents so far released confirm an ugly contamination of Britain's government, yet Hutton is merely a taste of what lurks within Whitehall. Blair's horror would be a judicial order to reveal all the messages between Downing Street and the White House, which would explain why Blair was determined to invade Iraq despite the lack of any evidence of WMDs. Exposing those secrets would be the next step towards Blair's Watergate.

So far, Blair and his advisers have contained any embarrassment. By carefully orchestrating their response to Lord Hutton, they have minimised the damage. What they cannot foresee is where else Hutton may decide to probe. Blair trusts that Hutton will not stray from only investigating Dr Kelly's death, but the public mood will resist any limitation on the inquiry.

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