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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 June, 2003, 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK
The most serious of allegations

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

Short has accused Blair of deceiving the public
Clare Short has coined the phrase that now threatens to dog Tony Blair over his decision to go to war on Iraq.

When he set out the case against Saddam Hussein to parliament and the people he was perpetrating an "honourable deception," she said.

This is the most serious allegation that can be levelled at any politician, let alone a prime minister.

Ms Short is claiming that the prime minister was so convinced that it was right to take action against Saddam Hussein that he was prepared to, at best, bend the truth to get his way.

And if the foreign affairs committee - once it has interviewed a host more people including foreign secretary Jack Straw twice - agrees that this was indeed the case then, make no mistake, Tony Blair will have to resign.

It is unthinkable that a prime minister could remain in office after being judged by a Commons committee to have deliberately misled the Commons and the country over war - honourably or otherwise.

Dramatic language

Even if the committee simply concludes that it was possible the prime minister may have misled parliament, his standing would take a knock.

Robin Cook
Cook's evidence is just as deadly
Ms Short's claim was by far the most serious to come from the first day of the committee's investigation.

But the evidence given by former Commons leader Robin Cook - who quit in protest at the war - was potentially just as deadly.

In less dramatic language, he claimed that - whatever they may have believed - ministers did state things in the Commons that did not later match the facts on the ground.

He also insisted that, during his time in government, it was evident Saddam Hussein did not present the sort of imminent threat claimed by President Bush and Tony Blair when urging military action against him.

The crux of the evidence from both former ministers was that the prime minister had made his mind up to go to war early in the proceedings.

And, to quote Mr Cook, the government and the prime minister used intelligence to justify a policy which was already settled rather than using the intelligence to form the policy.

Spin doctor

Most of the allegations have been heard before, but having them laid out in one intensive session served to underline the gravity of these claims.

And in Mr Blair's defence, given that the two ministers ended their careers over this issue, there is bound to be an element of "they would say that wouldn't they" about all this.

But this was a serious and weighty examination of the facts as these two senior politicians genuinely see them.

And their evidence will not be lightly dismissed. It may, however, be hugely difficult to prove, one way or the other.

An unclear conclusion from this inquiry can still do great damage to the prime minister's standing.

Tony Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, who are accused of being the major culprits, have refused to give evidence to the committee.

Mr Blair is instead relying on a separate, private inquiry by parliament's intelligence committee - which is appointed bay and reports directly to him.

He remains absolutely confident he will be vindicated.

He must hope that vindication comes quickly.

The BBC's Polly Billington
"Robin Cook says that [an imminent] threat did not exist"

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