Tony Blair was left damaged last night by the double-edged verdict of the Butler committee which cleared him of personal blame but damned the "seriously flawed" quality of MI6 intelligence on Iraq used by Downing Street to bolster the case for war.
The report of the five-member Butler inquiry, running to 196 pages, found that "there was no deliberate attempt on the part of the government to mislead."
However, it accused No 10 of placing the intelligence services under such "strain" that their neutrality was compromised.
The report reveals new information about the way in which thin and at times inaccurate intelligence was turned into prime ministerial certainty. In a devastating litany of mistakes, omissions and hyperbole, it says:
o Downing Street stretched the available intelligence to "the outer limits."
o The claim that biological or chemical weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes should not have been included in the dossier, and led to suspicions that it had been inserted "because of its eye-catching character."
o The government's September 2002 dossier setting out the case for war had the "serious weakness" of omitting many crucial caveats about the dubious nature and limitations of much of the intelligence. The language in the dossier suggested the intelligence was "fuller and firmer" than it was.
o Britain had only a handful of "main sources" on Iraq and the quality of much of their information has since been challenged by the intelligence services themselves. Reports from a key source were withdrawn in July last year as "unreliable."
The Butler report blames no individual, focusing instead on "group think the development of a prevailing wisdom." Lord Butler specifically insisted that John Scarlett, the chairman of the joint intelligence committee responsible for drawing up the Iraq dossier, should not lose his job as forthcoming head of MI6. Mr Blair seized upon the lack of personal criticism in his statement to the Commons.
"There was no conspiracy, there was no impropriety. The essential judgment and truth, as usual, does not lie in extremes," insisted the prime minister, who also told MPs: "No one lied, no one made up intelligence." Yet in a combative and self- justifying defence of the US-led war he accepted "full personal responsibility for the way the issue was presented and therefore any errors made."
It fell short of the apology many had demanded. But the fourth major inquiry since the war ended gave Mr Blair some comfort by highlighting the wider case for tackling the terrorist threat. Labour loyalists, including some anti-war MPs, believe that is enough to save his leadership as the government squares up to two crucial byelections today and the beckoning general election.
But two Labour MPs broke ranks yesterday to call on Mr Blair to consider his position.
Geraldine Smith, who voted for the war, and Christine McCafferty, who voted against, both complained that backbenchers were misled last year. The Tory leader, Michael Howard, said the issue was "the prime minister's credibility.
The question he must ask himself is, does he have any credibility left?"
Charles Kennedy, for the Liberal Democrats, said the report had underlined "the need for a proper public inquiry into the political judgments and how they were arrived at."
Lord Butler paints a picture of intelligence agencies under strong pressure from the government to come up with ammunition to back up the tougher stance it adopted on Iraq in early 2002. The report discloses that they did not come up with any information to back up the claim that Saddam was continuing to breach UN resolutions.
The joint intelligence committee also made no attempt to check why UN inspectors had failed to find any weapons in Iraq.
In one of his most memorable comments, Lord Butler yesterday was drawn to say: "Iraq's a big place and there's lots of sand.'' His team included Labour's Ann Taylor and Tory Michael Mates, both intelligence specialists, along with former chief of defence staff Lord Inge and former Northern Ireland permanent secretary Sir John Chilcot.
Greg Dyke, the director general of the BBC who resigned after strong criticism from Lord Hutton, was scathing about the accent on group rather than individual culpability. "I am fascinated by the concept that it is now going to be collective responsibility by such a large collective that no one needs to resign," he told Channel 4 News.
Other critics emerged, from Robin Cook, the ex-foreign secretary, who dubbed Lord Butler "a wonderful specimen of the British establishment", to Hans Blix, the UN weapons inspector, who said: "The whole point is that armed force should only be used as a last resort. The Butler report confirms that intelligence should have been reassessed, that the evidence was very weak. If that had happened they would have concluded that inspectors should have been given more time and that Saddam could have been contained."