Tony Blair’s credibility over weapons of mass destruction is set to face its sternest test after his special envoy to Iraq conceded yesterday Saddam Hussein had stockpiled none.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock’s remarkably frank admission came as speculation mounted that two of Britain’s top spymasters and the government’s most senior law officer will be criticised by an official inquiry into the handling of intelligence on Saddam’s WMD.
The 100-page draft of Lord Butler of Brockwell’s report, according to the Sunday Times, will criticise MI6 after it admitted its intelligence on WMD - at one stage Mr Blair’s basis for the conflict to remove Saddam - was wrong.
Downing Street is braced for a fresh storm of controversy over Iraq as the report raises serious questions about its dossier which included the infamous claim that Saddam could deploy the weapons within 45 minutes.
Sir Jeremy yesterday piled on the pressure for the Prime Minister when he said the "compelling" evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction was wrong.
He said the feared stockpiles of WMD "are not there" but insisted that the military action had nevertheless been fully justified.
"The decisions taken, from the intelligence at the time, were very understandable.
"The reason for doing this, through the UN resolutions and from intelligence assessment, were actually quite compelling.
"We were wrong on the stockpiles, we were right about the intention," he told the BBC.
His comments underlined the impression that the chiefs of the security services were right to brace themselves for serious criticism from Lord Butler’s inquiry into the intelligence used to justify the war.
The mounting speculation that senior figures would face censure when the peer publishes his findings on 14 July led one cabinet minister to warn yesterday against a witch hunt.
Peter Hain, the Leader of the House of Commons, said he accepted mistakes may have been made and lessons would have to be learned but said the services’ record was generally very good. "I think the secret intelligence service MI6 and the domestic security service MI5 do a fantastic job for us," he told GMTV.
"That is not to say that they do not make mistakes, from time to time, any more than government ministers like me or like the Prime Minister.
"But overall they do a fantastic job so I am saying in advance that this government will not be party to any kind of witch hunt against anybody."
The Liberal Democrats, who boycotted the inquiry because of its concentration on spies not politicians, said the expected conclusions would not be a surprise.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the Lib Dems’ foreign affairs spokesman, said: "The fundamental issue remains what did ministers know and when? The public is entitled to scrutiny of ministerial judgements and decision making."
According to the Sunday Times, which claimed yesterday to have seen a draft of Lord Butler’s report, much of the spotlight is on Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, who advised the Cabinet that the war was legal. John Scarlett, then head of the joint intelligence committee, will also face criticism.
The inquiry has been told of an apparent inconsistency, in that Lord Goldsmith cast doubt over his own advice during private conversations with fellow government law officers.
Lord Goldsmith is said to have told one senior legal figure - thought to be Sir David Calvert-Smith, the former Director of Public Prosecutions - the he shared the concerns of Elizabeth Wilmhurst, the Foreign Office legal adviser.
She resigned because she believed the war against Iraq was illegal.