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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 January, 2004, 17:14 GMT
Blair to face his monsters

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

In just a few days, Tony Blair will finally face the monsters that have been stalking him since virtually the day he walked back into Downing Street for the second time.

Tony Blair at the Hutton inquiry
Blair has agreed to lead Hutton debate
And Michael Howard may get his best ever chance to bring down a Labour prime minister.

Thanks to some extraordinary and controversial timing, the backbench Labour revolt over tuition fees, the Hutton report into the death of Dr David Kelly and the lead up to the Iraq war will hit the prime minister on successive days.

And whether they blow him out of Downing Street or simply go "phut" is now the only talk in Westminster.

It is no exaggeration to say that the conjunction of these two events will determine both the prime minister's future and the future direction of British politics.

But they may also have major consequences for Michael Howard's leadership, particularly if he fails to fully exploit any damage done to the prime minister.

Fees vote

The student fees rebellion on its own could be enough to fatally wound Mr Blair.

Although the fact that the very next day he will receive the Hutton report hands government whips another weapon in their battle to win over dissenters.

Lord Hutton
Lord Hutton will report after fees vote
They will undoubtedly warn backbenchers that they should do nothing to weaken Mr Blair's position before the Hutton report.

It is already being suggested by some that the government chose the timing of the fees vote knowing the date Lord Hutton had chosen to publish his report.

But it is still that report which remains the most potentially damaging event for Mr Blair since he was elected as Labour leader.

Needless to say, no one knows what Lord Hutton has concluded about the government's role in the death of Dr David Kelly, or the process which saw the prime minister taking the country to war on Iraq.

Sexed up

But if he levels any serious criticism at Tony Blair, his position will become hugely difficult.

There are two key questions which will dominate the exchanges between the prime minister and Tory leader Michael Howard when they clash in the Commons over the Hutton report.

First, to what extent was the prime minister responsible for the process which led to the naming of Dr Kelly as the source for the BBC story claiming the famous Iraq dossier had been "sexed up."

Michael Howard
Howard's performance is crucial
Second, did Mr Blair effectively "spin" Britain into war against Iraq on a false basis.

Mr Howard has already shown he believes comments the prime minister made denying any role in the "outing" of Dr Kelly have been contradicted by later evidence to the Hutton inquiry.

During two question time sessions he has asked the prime minister to stand by his original comment that he had nothing to do with the strategy - and the prime minister has refused.

Similarly there are growing doubts over the evidence for the prime minister's claim about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which he used to help win support for the war.

Both these issues - of war and reform of the public services - have, one way or another, dominated the second New Labour administration.

These two events in the last week of January will finally bring both to a head.

It promises to be a rough ride for the prime minister and the outcome remains hugely unpredictable.

The BBC's John Pienaar
"Tony Blair's authority is on the line"

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