Blair's Right Hand Man Comes Under Fire

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

London ( - A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair denied reports that Blair's communications chief will step down within months after being entangled in political infighting over the death of a government weapons adviser.

Alastair Campbell, viewed by many British commentators as one of the most important members of Blair's administration, was at the heart of the war of words that eventually resulted in the suicide of adviser David Kelly last week.

Kelly was the source of a BBC report claiming that Campbell had exaggerated evidence about Iraq's weapons programs to enhance the case for war against Saddam Hussein's regime.

Campbell denied the allegations and the report touched off a growing dispute between the BBC and Downing Street.

Eventually Kelly voluntarily told Ministry of Defense officials that he spoke to BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan. He later testified in front of a House of Commons committee and was found dead three days later.

Blair has appointed a judge to head an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Kelly's suicide near his rural Oxfordshire home last week.

Downing Street denials

Late Thursday, the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, reported that Campbell would quit this fall.

Marr, who did not go into detail about his sources, said that Blair and Campbell had recently met and agreed that the communications chief would leave after Lord Hutton's independent investigation is over.

"It looks much more likely now that Alastair Campbell will stay on ... until he goes at the time of his choosing and in a manner that demonstrates that he has done nothing wrong," Marr said on BBC television. "That means really the end of August, into the autumn, depending on how long the Hutton inquiry takes to report."

But Downing Street denied the report, calling it "wishful thinking" and "gossip rather than substance."

"The main issue remains that the BBC broadcast false allegations ... with not a shred of evidence to substantiate them," the prime minister's office said in a statement.

Campbell, who has guided Blair through two terms in office, has frequently been attacked by opposition party politicians and journalists for being tight-lipped and combative.

Conservative foreign affairs spokesman Michael Ancram, speaking to Britain's ITV network, said he would welcome Campbell's departure.

"All I can say is that he is going and not before time (is up)," Ancram said.

But Blair's cabinet stuck up for the communications chief.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said he "has been a great force for good in the government."

"Alastair's decision is a decision for Alastair in discussion with the prime minister. It is not a decision that should fill the airwaves with gossip-obsessed speculation," she told BBC radio. "Alastair Campbell is a strong man, a good man and a person who in every fiber of his body believes in Labor (Party) values."

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