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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 July, 2003, 06:42 GMT 07:42 UK
Blair fends off Kelly questions
Blair would not be drawn over Alastair Campbell's future
Tony Blair has fended off questions over the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly - but acknowledged that trust in his government was an issue which he had to confront.

Mr Blair, who said his appetite for power remained "undiminished" despite his recent troubles, said he understood the "very legitimate questions" to be asked over Dr Kelly's death.

But, speaking during his monthly televised news conference, he said it was important to let the Hutton Inquiry into the affair run its course.

The prime minister, asked about Labour's relations with the BBC after reports that intelligence on Iraq's weapons was exaggerated, said all the government had wanted was to "correct an incorrect story".

Later, while rejecting calls for a wider independent inquiry into the case for war with Iraq, he refused to be drawn on questions about whether he would resign if no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq.

All we ever wanted was an incorrect story corrected
Tony Blair

But he acknowledged the need to win public trust over the Iraq war, saying: "I accept there is an issue that we have to confront."

Asked about comments by cabinet minister Lord Falconer that Mr Blair would lead Labour into a third term in government, the prime minister said: "There is a big job of work to do - my appetite for doing it is undiminished. Who the country elects is ultimately for the country."

He opened the news conference by hailing the government's achievements as it approaches a "milestone" this weekend which sees it become the longest serving Labour government of all time.

Progress

But he acknowledged that people needed to know what the government did during the war on Iraq "was right" in order to secure their trust in ministers.

There has always been something bizarre about the notion that Saddam never had any weapons of mass destruction
Tony Blair

Mr Blair announced the expansion of controversial proposals to give more hospitals foundation status and the chance to control their own budgets.

Michael Barber, the head of the Downing Street delivery unit, also gave a progress report on public service reform.

The inquiry into Dr Kelly's death is due to open on Friday, before being adjourned until after his funeral which is to be held next Wednesday.

Mr Blair, who is believed to heading to Barbados for a family holiday this week, has said he will do whatever Lord Hutton requires, including cutting short his holiday if needed.

Kelly debate

Mr Blair has already denied authorising the release of Dr Kelly's name as the possible source behind a BBC story that the government had "sexed up" its September dossier on Iraq's weapons.


During the news conference, the prime minister refused to be drawn again on that question.

And he also ducked questions about whether his director of communications, Alastair Campbell, was planning to quit.

But he said it was important to reflect on relations between politicians and the media once the Hutton inquiry had finished its work.

Mr Blair replied: "I think there are issues there for both sides of the political culture and perhaps when the Hutton inquiry has finalised its judgements and published those, that debate can take place in a more informed way.

"There are things for us both to reflect on."

He added: "I think it is important that all of us, once the inquiry reports, learn the lessons of that."

'Bizarre'

Mr Blair said he did not believe an inquiry into the war on Iraq was justified, but urged people to wait for reports from the Iraqi Survey Group, a team of experts tasked with looking for evidence of weapons, before rushing to judgement.

He said he remained confident that the intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons programmes received by the government was correct.

He said: "There has always been something bizarre about the notion that Saddam never had any weapons of mass destruction."

Asked whether he wanted Saddam dead or alive, he said: "I think the most important thing is that he ceases to be an obstacle to progress in Iraq."

Mr Blair also signalled his support for the introduction of identity cards in the UK.

But added: "However there are huge logistical and cost issues that need to be resolved.

"It's worth looking, which is what we are doing, at how you can resolve them, but it's not a quick-fix for the system, because of the amount of time and the logistical process in introducing them."

'Evaded'

The news conference came after Mr Blair's deputy, John Prescott, urged Labour rebels to "shut up for the summer" amid the continuing rows over Iraq.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said Mr Blair had "evaded" the key questions.

"But the central question on the Hutton inquiry was not posed," he added.

"That is: If Lord Hutton concludes that his limited remit has prevented him from fully investigating the circumstances leading to Dr David Kelly's death will the prime minister then agree to set up a more wide-ranging independent inquiry, headed by a judge, into the events which led us going to war?"

Dr Kelly's body was found in woods near his Oxfordshire home nearly two weeks ago - he had apparently committed suicide.

His death came after speculation, later confirmed by the BBC, that he was the source of stories that the government had "sexed up" an intelligence dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

It was announced on Wednesday that Dr Kelly's funeral will take place on 6 August at St Mary's Church in Longworth, Oxfordshire.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Laura Trevelyan
"The questions were about whether he's lost the trust of the people"



SEE ALSO:
Kelly funeral date announced
30 Jul 03  |  Politics
Blair ducks the hard questions
30 Jul 03  |  Politics


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