Blair's triumph will be a nine-day wonder

How Hutton provided the prime minister with an opportunity to exit

Tony Blair is now a lame-duck prime minister. Once his euphoria over the conclusions of the Hutton report has subsided, that ought to be clearer to him than ever. His main domestic project - reform of the public services - lies in ruins. Major bills on the NHS and higher education have scraped through the Commons only after extensive modification and in the face of insurrection among Labour MPs. Indeed, the top-up fees bill would have fallen on its second reading last Tuesday without the support of two Northern Ireland SDLP MPs and one Conservative. Mr Blair's hopes of taking Britain into the euro have been delayed indefinitely once more and, thanks to the Iraq war, he is regarded with the greatest suspicion by most other EU leaders. The things that were supposed to give his premiership purpose have run into the sand.

As for Hutton, the Prime Minister's apparent vindication on the narrow issue that was posed to the inquiry is likely to make his anti-war critics in the Labour Party and elsewhere even more angry. Mr Blair has got away with it, as politicians usually do, by evading the question and changing the subject. The imbroglio over Andrew Gilligan's early morning comments on the Today programme was created by him and his staff. Downing Street could have put out a denial and then moved on as it normally does. It chose not to do so - and even Lord Hutton acknowledges that Alastair Campbell's complaints were expressed "in exceptionally strong terms which raised very considerably the temperature" - because the issue diverted attention from questions about the weapons of mass destruction themselves. Though nobody could have predicted that David Kelly would help by committing suicide, the ruse succeeded beyond Downing Street's wildest dreams.

Lord Hutton criticises BBC editors for failing to give "careful consideration" to whether it was right to broadcast Mr Gilligan's comments; BBC managers for failing to appreciate that his notes did not fully support his allegations; and the BBC governors for failing to "make more detailed investigations". He thus sets high standards for a media organisation - higher, one is tempted to add, than are observed in the legal profession, as repeated miscarriages of justice suggest . Yet his lordship seems to think it perfectly acceptable for the British government to send men to war on the basis of a bit of dubiously sourced intelligence. No need there for careful consideration, scrutiny of notes or detailed investigations.

Reading Lord Hutton's conclusions, one is hard-pressed to remember that it was the government, not the BBC, that got it wrong about Saddam Hussein's capacity to launch WMDs, that (wittingly or unwittingly) it gave parliament and public a stream of false information about the need for war. Human Rights Watch, hardly the most doctrinaire and oppositional of the NGOs, has suggested that even Mr Blair's default position, that Saddam was still engaged in mass slaughter at home, had only limited truth. What is most remarkable of all - and the greatest tribute to Downing Street's skill in manipulating the agenda - is that Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, has had to resign, while every minister, civil servant and intelligence officer who agreed on the need for war remains in office. The BBC has its faults but, as Nick Cohen shows (page 11), the faults in how we are governed should concern us more.

But like the capture of Saddam and the neutering of Colonel Gaddafi, this triumph will prove a nine-day wonder. All leaders sometimes find themselves at odds with their own party supporters, and rightly so. Mr Blair, however, seems wilfully to seek isolation. It may be reasonable to ask his backbenchers to re-examine some of their articles of faith: free university education, comprehensive schools, a centrally run health service, nationalised public utilities, opposition to American-led wars, and so on. But all of them? No policy can now be advocated by Mr Blair without profound questions about his beliefs and his real motives. He proposes specialist schools and everyone thinks he wants the 11-plus back. He proposes allowing universities to set their own fee levels and everyone thinks he wants to marketise higher education. He proposes changes to the structure of the NHS and everyone thinks he wants to end free healthcare. They are probably right. Mr Blair's instincts are profoundly un-Labour. That is his problem.

It is precisely because Britain needs change and (to use Mr Blair's favourite word) boldness that his period in office should end. Some old Labour, as well as old Tory, attitudes do need to be challenged. But the challenge has to come from a leader trusted by the mass of Labour MPs and supporters. Mr Blair can now leave office with dignity, without a stain on his character. A judge has found him not guilty of "dishonourable, underhand or duplicitous" conduct. The Prime Minister should seize the moment, announce his departure in the summer and leave his successor time to prepare for the general election. Then, and only then, can new Labour regain its momentum.