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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 June, 2003, 13:27 GMT 14:27 UK
Blair's credibility battle

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Reid's allegations overshadowed Blair's defence
Tony Blair knew that when he came before MPs to defend his record over the war on Iraq he was fighting for his credibility.

Maybe he was even fighting for his premiership.

This row has now become that serious. And it showed.

And at the end of an ill-tempered, bruising and edge-of-the-seat Commons battle it was absolutely clear that he was still facing a serious challenge.

It is hard to recall a time when the prime minister appeared more angry, or even more nervous, that on this occasion.

He had faced his war critics before, notably in the debate leading to the Commons vote ultimately sanctioning the conflict.

And, on that occasion, he more than rose to the occasion. This was different.

Right thing

He certainly put a powerful case defending his position on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

And, more clearly than ever before, he insisted all his claims about WMD - including claims Saddam could have launched weapons within 45 minutes - were based on reports by the Joint Intelligence Committee.

He also repeated his challenge to his critics and those accusing him of misleading them over WMD to present their evidence.

If Dr Reid's intervention had been designed to divert attention away from the central allegations and demands for a public inquiry then it dramatically failed.
The claims, he insisted, were simply untrue and he was confident the private inquiry by parliament's intelligence committee would support him.

He also once again asked how anyone could doubt that liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein had not been the right thing to do.

It was a passionate and, for many, convincing case.

Less convincing

Just minutes before, his deputy John Prescott had addressed a private meeting of Labour MPs to underline to them just how serious the issue was and to urge them to get behind their leader.

Dr Reid made serious allegations
Unfortunately for Mr Blair, attacks by Commons leader John Reid on "rogue" intelligence agents allegedly undermining the government had, by then, badly backfired and overshadowed the event.

And on this, the prime minister was far less confident or convincing.

Iain Duncan Smith, who has been agonising on how far to enter this row, used Dr Reid's allegations as the basis for finally joining the Liberal Democrats in calling for a full judicial inquiry into the war.

If Dr Reid's intervention had been designed to divert attention away from the central allegations and demands for a public inquiry then it dramatically failed.

More serious

Instead it gave Mr Duncan Smith that reason to demand a judicial inquiry because, as he said, these allegations are hugely serious.

The prime minister patently failed to back Dr Reid's claims - although it is unthinkable he had not sanctioned them - simply saying he had been stating the obvious fact that a member of the intelligence services had been speaking to a BBC journalist.

But Dr Reid's claims had been far more serious than that and, if accurate, would demand a high level probe into the intelligence services.

So that raised a new question over whether this was yet another piece of spin aimed at undermining the allegations being levelled at the prime minister.

Before this, it was likely the prime minister's performance and the decision by two parliamentary committees to investigate the claims may have dampened down this entire row.

The claims about the intelligence services, however, has ensured it will run for some time yet.

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