The BBC chairman Gavyn Davies became the first casualty of the inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly as Lord Hutton was accused last night of presiding over a "whitewash".
Tony Blair, his former director of communications Alastair Campbell and the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon were all cleared of any improper behaviour leading up to the suicide of the weapons expert, bringing barely disguised relief in Government circles.
Vindication of Mr Blair allowed him to survive the most testing 24 hours of his premiership, following his wafer-thin victory in Tuesday's Commons vote on tuition fees. The combination of both events could have cost the Prime Minister his job but one jubilant aide said last night: "Houdini has done it again."
However, Lord Hutton failed to settle the crucial question of whether Mr Blair took Britain to war in Iraq on a false prospectus. After he ruled that the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was beyond his terms of reference, the Tories and Liberal Democrats renewed their demands for an independent inquiry into the build-up to war.
The 740-page report sent shockwaves through the BBC. Lord Hutton said that the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan's allegation that the Government had "sexed up" its dossier on Iraqi weapons and included intelligence it knew to be probably wrong or questionable was "unfounded".
He criticised as "defective" the BBC management system which allowed the reporter to make his claims on Radio 4's Today programme and said the BBC governors should have investigated the Government's complaint about his story more fully.
The BBC board of governors was in a crisis session last night and will meet again today amid speculation that further resignations are on the cards - possibly by all 12 members.
Accepting "ultimate responsibility", Mr Davies said: "I have been brought up to believe that you cannot choose your own referee, and that the referee's decision is final."
But he went on to challenge key elements of Lord Hutton's findings, asking: "Is it clearly possible to reconcile Lord Hutton's bald conclusions on the production of the September 2002 dossier with the balance of evidence that was presented to him during his own inquiry?"
He also asked: "Are his conclusions on restricting the use of unverifiable sources in British journalism based on sound law and, if applied, would they constitute a threat to the freedom of the press in this country?" Mr Davies's comments reflected anger at the BBC at Lord Hutton's surprisingly strong criticism. One BBC insider described it as "an old man's report that is simply wrong".
Greg Dyke, the corporation's director general, said: "The BBC does accept that certain key allegations reported by Andrew Gilligan on the Today programme on 29 May last year were wrong and we apologise for them."