London

With its daily dominance of the headlines and a stellar cast from the worlds of government, secret intelligence and the media, the Hutton inquiry, playing here until the end of the month, is easily the greatest show in town. There is even a white canvas big top for journalists, pitched in a yard of the Royal Courts of Justice, where Lord Hutton, a former chief justice of Northern Ireland, is conducting his “investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death” of Dr. David Kelly. Kelly was the British government expert on Iraqi chemical and biological weapons whose body was found in the woods in July shortly after he was named as the source of a controversial BBC report claiming that the government had “sexed up” the intelligence contained in its dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Until Kelly’s death the British government had maintained what a student of Nixon era might term a “modified, limited hang-out” on the sources of Tony Blair’s claim, in the House of Commons last September, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction ready to launch “within forty-five minutes.” Since the BBC first reported in late May that portions of the Iraq dossier (and Blair’s speech) had been doctored to make the case for war seem more urgent, pressure has been building on the government. When Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spokesman, responded with an all-out attack on the BBC’s credibility, it seemed like a heavy-handed attempt to change the subject. But now, in the aftermath of Kelly’s death, it appears that Campbell’s gambit will succeed. The question of why British and American troops are still fighting–and dying–in Iraq has all but disappeared from view.

Instead we have Hutton’s sideshow of fascinating, mostly trivial, revelations. Yes, Alastair Campbell was intimately involved in drafting the September dossier–though John Scarlett, the career spook in charge of producing the document, told Hutton that Campbell merely offered suggestions on “presentation.” And no, the BBC wasn’t entirely happy with its own reporting–but given that Campbell was a habitual bully whose past complaints about coverage hadn’t always proved true, the BBC wasn’t going to back down either. Blair’s testimony on August 28 had the public camping out for tickets the night before, and the Prime Minister’s remark that if he had knowingly overstated the danger from Iraq “it would have merited my resignation,” though a disarming gesture, still carried the risk that someone might call his bluff. But Campbell’s surprise resignation the following day, timed perfectly to monopolize the Sunday papers, was a sideshow within the sideshow that directed the public gaze even further from the pretext on which this country went to war.

Lord Hutton himself is a formidable inquisitor who has managed, almost in passing, to elicit any number of embarrassing admissions from Blair and his ministers. In contrast to the blanket denial issued immediately after Kelly’s death, for example, Blair now described himself as very much involved in the decision to out Kelly. And the hundreds of documents on the inquiry’s excellent website (www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk), many of them with classifications that would normally insure their being kept secret for thirty years, have given the British a tantalizing taste of open government–and a reminder of how little this government has done to redeem its promises on freedom of information. Nor can Hutton’s very narrow remit, with its determined focus on Kelly’s personal tragedy rather than questions of policy, save Blair from Kelly’s widow, who accused the government of hanging her husband out to dry. David Kelly felt “totally let down and betrayed,” Janice Kelly told the inquiry.

Kelly’s suicide has brought Blair’s government to its lowest point yet in the opinion polls, but as they say in Washington, you can’t beat somebody with nobody, and none of the other parties seem able to capitalize on Blair’s misfortune. The only potential danger is from inside the Labour Party, whose annual conference next month begins as Hutton is winding down. For the moment, though, the truly damaging questions haven’t even been asked. Why was Blair so determined to make the case for war? How did Bush explain US objectives, and what conditions, if any, did Blair place on Britain’s willingness to circumvent the United Nations? How much did US and British planners rely on Iraqi exiles for their information? Was there–is there–an exit strategy? The Hutton inquiry may have briefly lifted the veil of Britain’s culture of official secrecy, but for answers to those questions we will have to await investigations taking place in the city where Blair’s choices were framed for him: Washington.