The death of the former Iraq weapons inspector Dr David Kelly seven years ago caused a political firestorm that profoundly destabilised the Blair government.
Dr Kelly was found dead in the woods near his home after he had been named as the source of an explosive BBC report that claimed the Government had ’sexed up’ the evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
In the high-profile inquiry chaired by Lord Hutton into the circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly’s death, the one thing that was never queried was the premise that he had committed suicide. This was taken as read, and many believed his ‘outing’ had driven him to take his own life.
Yet now the new Attorney-General Dominic Grieve has let it be known that he may order an inquiry to look again at the assumption that Dr Kelly died by his own hand. At the same time, the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is said to be considering a request to release the medical files relating to the scientist’s death.
This is all very much to be welcomed as potentially shedding light on an intensely controversial event that has grown ever more murky as the years have rolled on.
It was especially puzzling, for example, that, as was revealed earlier this year, Lord Hutton quietly ensured the evidence relating to Dr Kelly’s death was to remain a classified state secret until 2073.
Given that Dr Kelly had been closely involved in the most sensitive of intelligence work, it would not be surprising if certain evidence given to the inquiry in closed session was to be kept secret in order not to compromise security sources.
But Lord Hutton went much further than this and classified all the medical and scientific records connected with Dr Kelly’s death, the post mortem report and photographs of his body.
This inexplicable secrecy can excite only suspicion that the authorities have something very bad indeed to hide. So an inquiry would be welcome if it kills off such speculation.
Nevertheless, such a move by the Attorney-General would raise many eyebrows. For it suggests that the real scandal over Dr Kelly was one that was totally missed in all the sound and fury of the Hutton inquiry.
Until now, those claiming Dr Kelly did not commit suicide have been regarded as off-the-wall conspiracy theorists. Neither Mr Grieve nor Mr Clarke, however, can possibly be considered to be among their number.
Moreover, it’s not as if they are being forced to respond to the kind of public pressure that brought about the farcical inquest into the death of Princess Diana. There has been no widespread public disquiet over the manner of Dr Kelly’s death at all. The prospect of an inquiry comes out of a clear-blue sky.
It is being mooted simply because the rational, cautious and circumspect Attorney-General is said to be concerned that the full truth about this may not have emerged.
This is particularly welcome for those of us who have long thought that Dr Kelly’s presumed ’suicide’ raised troubling questions that have never been satisfactorily answered — indeed, never addressed at all.
Those behind the campaign to reconsider the suicide verdict are a group of doctors who have looked at the available evidence and decided that it just doesn’t stack up. The points they make are compelling — so much so that Mr Grieve has commended them for making ‘an impressive and cogent case’.
For example, Dr Kelly was said to have killed himself by severing the ulnar artery in his left wrist with a blunt gardening knife, along with swallowing some 29 Coproxamol painkiller tablets. He was said to have died either from haemorrhaging blood or a combination of cutting his wrist and taking the overdose.
But the doctors pointed out that virtually no blood was found near his body — and his stomach contained merely a fraction of one Coproxamol tablet. Moreover, severing the ulnar artery was a very odd way to commit suicide since, they said, it was of match-stick thickness and difficult to access.
None of these concerns — and many more — was ever tested out, because the coroner’s inquest where such evidence would have been heard was suspended in favour of the Hutton inquiry. And unlike an inquest, this had no statutory powers and did not require witnesses to give evidence under oath.
This all led Lib Dem MP (now Transport minister) Norman Baker to smell a rat — giving up his front-bench opposition post to investigate what had actually happened.
Mr Baker, who has a ferocious reputation for digging out politically uncomfortable truths, claimed that the police operation to investigate Dr Kelly’s death had started around nine hours before the weapons expert was reported missing.
He also made public letters suggesting that the coroner, Nicholas Gardiner, had doubts about the Hutton inquiry’s ability to establish the cause of death — and may have been led up the garden path.
The normal practice would be for the coroner to issue a temporary death certificate pending an official inquiry. But in this case, he issued an unprecedented full death certificate just one week after the inquiry started — and after he had held a meeting with Home Office officials.
Three years ago, Mr Baker published a book claiming that Dr Kelly had been murdered by opponents of Saddam Hussein, who feared that Dr Kelly would ‘discredit’ them by revealing ‘misinformation’ they had deliberately planted to bolster the case for war in Iraq.
In a rival claim, however, Richard Spertzel, a retired American micro-biologist who led the United Nations biological inspection team in Iraq, says evidence had emerged that Saddam was planning to attack American and European cities with deadly nerve agents placed in over-the-counter perfume bottles.
And Mr Spertzel says he was told that he and Dr Kelly, with whom he had worked closely, were numbers three and four on an Iraqi hit list.
I myself have met people familiar with the shadowy world in which Dr Kelly moved who are certain he was murdered. They are adamant that he would never have committed suicide, that he was an outstanding patriot who had done much dangerous work for his country, and that there was no shortage of foreign tyrants who might have wanted him killed because of the evidence he uncovered about their biological weapons.
Of course, all of this seems just too fantastic to be credible. Not only is it like a plot from a spy thriller, but if Dr Kelly was indeed murdered there must have been a real conspiracy to cover this up involving police officers and pathologists, civil servants and politicians. Yet if the Attorney-General does launch an inquiry into Dr Kelly’s ’suicide’, this is precisely the incredible possibility that he would be opening up.
And while it is entirely plausible that Princess Diana would not have died if she had been wearing her seat-belt, the story we have been given about the ’suicide’ of Dr Kelly doesn’t make any sense. Might the truth be that the outing of David Kelly’s name led not to his suicide — but to his killing?
Maybe, in the end, the truth will turn out to be more prosaic. But let us hope that Messrs Grieve and Clarke are not deflected from their intention to lay this disturbing episode finally to rest.