A temporary distraction?

By Nyta Mann
BBC News Online political correspondent
Has Downing Street's assault on the BBC served to divert attention from the serious parliamentary inquiry currently under way over the war with Iraq? Daft question: of course it has.

Labour MPs are far from happy about the distraction, and not just those who opposed the war.

"The Decision to go to War with Iraq" is the full and formal title of the investigation by the foreign affairs committee. Backbenchers are anxious that Westminster remains focused on that, rather than switch to the sound and fury that has followed Alastair Campbell's eruption before it.

More than that, they believe Tony Blair made an error in allowing it muddy the waters of the issue at hand.

Ealing MP Stephen Pound loyally supported the war. But now "we seem to have travelled back to Tebbit-time, where the BBC is an Aunt Sally for us to attack," he says, recalling the then Conservative chairman Norman Tebbit's frequent attacks and compiling of "dossiers" against the corporation in the mid-1980s.

While he maintains there are valid "questions" about Andrew Gilligan's report on the Iraq weapons dossier, "to widen that into an attack on the BBC is unproductive and stretches credulity".

"I think Alastair got carried away in the heat of the moment in front of the committee and it inevitably snowballs from there. But it's neither positive nor productive - nor likely to succeed."

Clive Soley is another MP who backed the war and also believes Downing Street has made a mistake. "More in sorrow than in anger, but mostly in frustration, I think this is mistake and its one that stems from the government's earlier mistake over how it made the case for war.

"It should have stayed focussed on UN Resolution 1441 and weapons of mass destruction. Instead, it couldn't decide which bit of the argument to stick with and so kept shifting its ground."

Where are the weapons?

Those elusive weapons of mass destruction (WMD) remain the key issue. The prime minister has repeatedly insisted they will be found.

On Friday Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, in his second session in a week before the committee, appeared to signal a subtle retreat on that certainty when he told it that "whether or not we do [find WMD], the decision to take military action was justified on March 18 on the basis of perfectly public information."

"Where are those weapons?" asks Brian Donohoe, not for the first time and with growing impatience. He initially voted with anti-war rebels in the Commons but was persuaded by the strength of the WMD argument to abstain when it came to the crucial eve-of-war debate.

"Quite clearly, we've got to see proof of them and we're still waiting. That is the main picture and we shouldn't lose sight of it. The rest of this drama is a sideshow."

Fellow abstainer Austin Mitchell agrees: "It's the old tactic - when you're on difficult ground, counter-attack."

"I don't think the government actually lied but it may have over-egged the pudding, and I hope the committees get answers to that," he says. "It's going to be difficult to come to a resolution on the issue but it's important to do so for such an important issue."

Blair faces questioning

As for MPs who voted against the war, they are biding their time. The foreign affairs committing aims to issue the report of its current inquiry by 7 July.

The following day and by happy coincidence, Mr Blair makes one of his rare appearances before the Commons liaison committee - the committee made up of all the chairman of parliament's select committees.

Dr Ian Gibson, liaison committee member and one of Labour's anti-war rebels, predicts there will be no time-wasting "on this deflection to the issue of Downing Street versus the BBC. We need to get down to the bottom of the real, serious issues".

"We're itching to see what the conclusions of the foreign affairs committee are - and what further answers we may get when we have the opportunity to cross-question the prime minister." He won't have to wait long.