Hutton special - Can Tony pull off a Tory trick?

The Scott inquiry into "arms to Iraq" was supposed to rock John Major's government - yet not one res

The report ran to 1,800 pages. It was produced after hearings that captivated the nation. It presented a catalogue of deceit, secrecy, bullying and incompetence. And still the government got away with it. Not a single resignation ensued. That was then. Will this time be any different?

The response of the Conservative government to Lord Justice Scott's inquiry into the illegal sale of arms to Iraq provides a manual of modern spin-doctoring. It is no wonder that Tony Blair and his people, as they prepare for the findings of Lord Hutton, have been trawling the archives of eight years ago to learn lessons in survival from John Major.

In the past few months, Blair's advisers have been poring over every statement he has made on weapons of mass destruction and on his role in the "outing" and eventual suicide of Dr David Kelly. Every available escape route is being tested.

Those who blame new Labour for inventing media manipulation need only refresh their memories about those tawdry events of 15 February 1996. The charge against the Tory administration was extremely serious: it had been prepared to let innocent men go to jail in its attempts to cover up the export of military equipment to Iraq in defiance of international law. A number of ministers and officials were implicated. It required one of the most pernicious and professional press operations ever conducted to get them off the hook.

Scott, for all his good intentions, made several cardinal errors. He spent two and a half years investigating the charges, delaying publication of his report repeatedly. By the time he reached his conclusion, there was a sense that events had "moved on". Even though Scott upheld almost all the allegations of trickery, bullying and double dealing, he provided ministers with two crucial half-sentences in his five volumes. Sir Nicholas Lyell, the attorney general, was "personally, as opposed to constitutionally, blameless", while William Waldegrave, the foreign office minister responsible at the time, did not have any "duplicitous intention". That was all the government needed.

Just to make sure, Major ordered that everything possible be done to gerrymander the outcome. Downing Street insisted on being given eight days to prepare its strategy. Scott acquiesced. The opposition was to be given 30 minutes. When the Speaker of the House intervened, a "compromise" was reached. Robin Cook, who was representing Labour, was granted two hours alone in a secure room at the Department of Trade and Industry. He was instructed to hand in his mobile phone but allowed a pen and a pad of paper.

Cook, a thorn in the side of Major then as he is of Blair now, delivered a tour de force that day. It was one of the most forensic performances the Commons had witnessed in a generation. Armed with the get-out-of-jail-free cards for Lyell and Waldegrave, the Tories suggested it should be Cook who resigned for impugning the ministers' integrity. Lobby journalists, as is their wont, allowed government spin-doctors to "guide" them to the most "important" passages - the ones most favourable to ministers. Within two hours of publication of the report, Waldegrave went live on ITN claiming vindication. The station duly reported that the findings had not been as bad for the government as expected. By the time Michael Brunson declared to an expectant nation on News at Ten that Major would survive, it was all over. I remember Tory spin-doctors celebrating that evening. They had put on three sides of paper "key points to make": that there was "no conspiracy to send innocent men to jail", that there had been "no deliberate misleading of parliament", even that there had been "no arms to Iraq".

The audacity of the operation was something to behold.

Fast forward to 2004, and the nervous days as all sides await Hutton's verdict. Blair's own survival is at stake. So worried has the government been - especially about the late testimony given by Sir Kevin Tebbit, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, in which he made clear that Blair had chaired the crucial meetings on the naming strategy - that it has tried to "clarify" Tebbit's submission. The 11th-hour attempt to influence both judge and civil service has only reinforced the mood of impending crisis. In Prime Minister's Questions on 7 January, Blair failed to answer Michael Howard's straight question: did he stand by his insistence that he had not played a role in putting David Kelly's name forward?

Howard has assigned some of the smartest brains in his party to assembling the case against the government. Unlike his hapless predecessor, Iain Duncan Smith, he will not focus on the culpability of Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary. Why go for the monkey when the organ grinder is just as vulnerable? Howard wants to establish that Blair took Britain to war on a false pretext. But given the Conservatives' staunch support for the Bush administration, Howard will have to tread carefully.

The government is preparing several positions, depending on the level of criticism and the balance of that criticism between the government and the BBC. Blair will try to hold on to Hoon, but he will not try too hard. He would lose little sleep in introducing improvements to the personnel policy of the Ministry of Defence, or across Whitehall generally. He can already demonstrate institutional changes in the media operation by the resignation of Alastair Campbell and the far less combative approach of his successor, David Hill.

If - and it remains an "if" - Hutton interprets his remit more broadly, to include the substance of the charge that Blair exaggerated or concocted evidence of WMDs in Iraq, the Prime Minister will be in severe danger. This, after all, is the salient issue. Blair's people are fully aware of the contradictions and of the verbal contortions they have gone through. They have used each statement he has made on Iraq artfully to shift his ground.

Indeed, he began doing so from the very first day of the war, last March. It now emerges that in No 10, the first questions were raised when the anticipated chemical attack on advancing US and British forces failed to materialise. More doubts surfaced when nothing was found in locations identified by troops as suspicious. Fear not, Blair said, weapons would be found once victory had been declared. Then it was a case of waiting for the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) to begin work. Once it had arrived, it was a case of giving it time. Then it was a case of interviewing the senior officials who had been seized. They would spill the beans. The fear factor was blamed when they did not, or could not, reveal anything. It was only when Saddam was taken, when the fear of retribution from Ba'athists elements was allayed, that progress would be made. Yet, even after that crucial moment in December, it was clear that the casus belli as set out by Blair had been false.

Still he would not give up. The Prime Minister and his officials had been surprised and disappointed that WMDs had not disappeared as a political issue. He had tried several times in late 2002 to remove in the public's mind any difference between discovering actual substances and evidence of "programmes". In his Christmas message to the 10,000 British servicemen and women stationed in Iraq, Blair told them the ISG report had unearthed "massive evidence" of clandestine laboratories, only for the US chief administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, to rubbish the claims.

On his return to Basra on 4 January, Blair adopted a different tack. His slip of the tongue, referring to "weapons of mass distraction" betrayed his intentions. He served notice that he regarded the WMD issue as over, as irrelevant. Basra provided him with unhappy memories. It was when he was last there, in May, that he was told of Andrew Gilligan's report. His photo opportunity with carefully selected "happy" Iraqi children was scuppered. His trip was ruined. This time, far from admitting errors, he proclaimed that Iraq had provided a "test case" for future military interventions.

Blair's rhetorical dexterity and his lack of contrition suggest he is prepared to adopt the same tactics as John Major did on that day in February 1996. He will try to tough it out. Back then Blair wrote to Cook, thanking him for exposing the truth about government policy towards Iraq. "You were not merely brilliant," he wrote, "you lifted the whole morale of our troops."

Blair's changing lines on WMDs

10 April 2002 Saddam Hussein's regime is despicable, he is developing weapons of mass destruction, and we cannot leave him doing so unchecked

24 Sept I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current, that Saddam has made progress on WMD and has to be stopped

30 Nov Not only do we know that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, we also know he is capable of using them

18 March 2003 We are asked now seriously to accept that in the last few years - contrary to all history, contrary to all intelligence - Saddam decided unilaterally to destroy those weapons. I say that such a claim is palpably absurd

28 April Before people crow about the absence of weapons of mass destruction, I suggest they wait a little bit. I remain confident that they will be found

31 May Those people who are sitting there saying: "Oh, it is all going to be proved to be a great big fib got out by the security services. There will be no weapons of mass destruction." Just wait and have a little patience

8 July I have absolutely no doubt at all that we will find evidence of WMD programmes

18 July If we are wrong, we will have destroyed a threat that is responsible for inhuman carnage and suffering. That is something I am confident history will forgive

28 Dec The Iraq Survey Group has already found massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories, workings by scientists, plans to develop long-range ballistic missiles