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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 January, 2004, 20:46 GMT
Blair does the double

By Andrew Marr
BBC political editor

It was so good for Tony Blair that some of his closest allies in the government were worried that it was frankly too good.

Tony Blair at the Hutton inquiry
It has been a "double or quits" week for Blair
Did Lord Hutton's unexpectedly unambiguous and full-hearted endorsement of almost every act by ministers and civil servants in the Kelly affair look like a whitewash?

Certainly, it could hardly have been better for Mr Blair.

He was cleared in detail and in general of almost every accusation that had been levelled at him; and where there was an apparent contradiction, as with his statement to reporters about having no involvement in the release of Dr Kelly's name, the prime minister was given the benefit of the doubt.

Trust

Lord Hutton heard many explanations by public servants, as well as ministers, about why they had done what they did. He found himself repeatedly satisfied.

While journalists may quietly grind their teeth and complain that Lord Hutton seemed to fail to appreciate their trade, and had even been naive, there is no doubt that Mr Blair has won a huge political victory.

For years he has been dogged by attacks on his honesty and trustworthiness. Now, admittedly over a relatively narrow issue, he has been completely vindicated.

Mr Blair was triumphant and relieved after reading Hutton, but he was not suddenly stronger

It gives him a chance to relaunch himself to a sceptical public some 16 months before a likely election.

He, and Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, and indeed Alastair Campbell, have received a judgement on their motives and behaviour that they can now turn on their critics, demanding apologies.

Mr Blair was more aggressive in the Commons in pursuing the Tory leader Michael Howard for a public retraction than he's been in public for a very long time. You could almost see months of frustration rising off the prime minister like steam.

The Tories now have a tricky strategic decision to make.

Mr Howard refused to apologise but he must now assess how useful it will be to continue questioning the Prime Minister's honesty and integrity.

Should this be a main Tory theme, as it has been, or will more traditional issues, such as tax and waste be more profitable?

Looking long-term

Though it felt like a transforming day, indeed a transforming week, at Westminster, it is easy to exaggerate the longer-term impact of the Hutton report.

Gavyn Davies
Blair will have to choose Davies' successor
Critics of the Iraq war, and all those uneasy about the non-appearance of weapons of mass destruction, will not be satisfied by these narrow terms of reference.

Mr Blair's media critics will snort "whitewash" and move on. And after the narrow squeak of the tuition fees vote, the prime minister cannot confront his own party in quite the same way ever again.

He was triumphant and relieved after reading Hutton. But he was not suddenly stronger.

In the medium term, the most obvious political outcome of the Hutton process involves the BBC itself.

Changes at the BBC

Westminster was awash with Blairites quietly threatening a major shake-up for the broadcasting organisation, and talking of the case for stripping the governors of most of their remaining powers.

Mr Campbell was not the only one demanding more severed heads, even after the resignation of the chairman, Gavyn Davies.

And now, at this particularly sensitive moment, Mr Blair will have to appoint a replacement.

All these, however, are the headaches of comparative success.

Mr Blair faced two serious hurdles this week, a "double or quits" moment unlike any he has been through since becoming Labour leader. Despite all the reservations and qualifications noted above, the short answer is that it's double.




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