Tomorrow will mark 20 years to the day that Dr David Kelly was seen alive for the last time, when he left his Oxfordshire home to take an innocent-seeming afternoon walk.
The body of the Government weapons expert was found in nearby woods at 9.20am the next day; his left wrist had been cut open, and an empty pack of painkilling tablets was sitting in his jacket pocket.
His assumed suicide – a week after he had been outed by Tony Blair‘s administration as the source of a BBC story claiming that a No 10 dossier on Saddam Hussein’s weapons capacity had been ‘sexed up’ to justify the war in Iraq – brought the Prime Minister to the brink of political extinction.
Mr Blair’s survival was effectively ‘fixed’ by his Praetorian Guard: Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Lord Falconer – all of whom remain influential figures, preparing for what they hope will be a new Labour Government under Sir Keir Starmer.
Mr Blair’s narrow escape was secured after a coroner’s inquest into Dr Kelly’s death was derailed and replaced with a Government-appointed inquiry chaired by Lord Hutton. In January 2004, Hutton cleared the Government of wrongdoing and placed the blame on the BBC, leading to the resignation of chairman Gavyn Davies and director-general Greg Dyke.
GLEN OWEN: Tomorrow will mark 20 years to the day that Dr David Kelly (pictured) was seen alive for the last time, when he left his Oxfordshire home to take an innocent-seeming afternoon walk
GLEN OWEN: Tony Blair’s survival was effectively ‘fixed’ by his Praetorian Guard: Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Lord Falconer
Lord Mandelson, who has been drafted in to meet potential Labour parliamentary candidates for Sir Keir, is credited – if that is the appropriate word – with masterminding the Hutton strategy. He is believed to have put forward Lord Hutton’s name to head the inquiry after deeming him an establishment figure who was likely to give the Government the benefit of the doubt.
Remarkably, Lord Hutton agreed to chair the inquiry within three hours of Dr Kelly’s body being found, even though no medical professional had yet examined it, there had been no formal identification, and no one knew how he had died.
Lord Falconer, the then Lord Chancellor and Mr Blair’s former flatmate, who is also a key figure in Sir Keir’s ‘magic circle’ of advisers, endorsed the recommendation and blocked the inquest by Oxfordshire coroner Nicholas Gardiner on the grounds that ‘the death is likely to be adequately investigated by the judicial inquiry’.
Suspicions about the true circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly’s death have lingered ever since, fanned by the absence of a full coroner’s inquest. It later emerged that there weren’t any fingerprints on the knife Kelly allegedly used to kill himself – even though he hadn’t worn gloves. This was never mentioned at the Hutton Inquiry but was known to police.
And when Lord Hutton finished his report, he secretly requested that all records which were not produced in evidence be closed to the public for 30 years and that all photographs of Dr Kelly’s body and medical reports relating to his death be sealed for 70 years.
Intriguingly, this year a ‘close Blair adviser’ involved in handling the crisis told respected political journalist Andrew Grice: ‘The whole thing was a fix from beginning to end.
‘Hutton was well chosen, the inquiry was well managed, well manipulated, well delivered.’
GLEN OWEN: Lord Mandelson, who has been drafted in to meet potential Labour parliamentary candidates for Sir Keir, is credited – if that is the appropriate word – with masterminding the Hutton strateg
At the time, Mr Campbell – an energetic media outrider for Sir Keir – was identified by Andrew Gilligan, the journalist behind the infamous BBC report, in The Mail on Sunday as the author of the ‘sexed-up’ dossier.
Mr Campbell, who went to war with the BBC over its report, has remained characteristically defiant about his role in the creation of the dossier, which falsely claimed that Iraq could use weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes of an order. In May 2006, he even autographed a copy of the Hutton Report to be auctioned to raise money for the party.
For many legal experts, there remain serious unanswered questions about Dr Kelly’s death and the role of those senior Blairites in defusing the crisis.
Dr Michael Powers KC, a former assistant deputy coroner, told The Mail on Sunday last night: ‘There is still great unease among senior legal figures – including some judges – that there has never been a full coroner’s inquest into Dr Kelly’s death.
‘The Hutton Inquiry was constructed by a group of individuals who were close to Tony Blair for reasons that suited the Blair Government in a moment of crisis, but it was woefully inadequate.
‘Key witnesses were not called to give evidence and those witnesses who did appear were not required to give their evidence on oath.
GLEN OWEN: Dr Kelly’s death, and the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, haunt Mr Blair – and, by extension, Sir Keir – to this day
‘Just half a day of the 24 days on which the Hutton Inquiry sat was spent going through the medical evidence relating to Dr Kelly’s death, and Lord Hutton never explored whether Dr Kelly intended to kill himself.
‘In short, it was nowhere near as rigorous as a coroner’s inquest would have been from a legal perspective and the hurdles that a coroner would have had to clear in order to reach a suicide finding were simply never attempted by Lord Hutton.’
Dr Kelly’s death is the only occasion on record when a coroner’s inquest into a single death has been adjourned using Section 17A of the 1988 Coroners Act so that a non-statutory public inquiry could be held instead.
This newspaper was at the centre of the drama two decades ago, most notably when Mr Blair was confronted by The Mail on Sunday’s political correspondent Jonathan Oliver soon after the news about Dr Kelly’s death had broken. After being asked whether he had ‘blood on [his] hands’, the Prime Minister turned pale and was uncharacteristically lost for words.
Dr Kelly’s death, and the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, haunt Mr Blair – and, by extension, Sir Keir – to this day.
Dr Powers says: ‘Sir Keir Starmer has spent much of his career in the law campaigning for a range of human rights causes. It is disappointing that the Labour leader has surrounded himself with figures who were, in different ways, involved in the process which undermined justice being done as far as Dr Kelly is concerned.
‘It would increase the esteem and respect in which he is held if Sir Keir were to demonstrate his independence and provide moral and legal support to ensuring that Dr Kelly’s death is revisited in the proper manner’.