ONCE UPON a time the Hutton report might have worked. Lord Hutton himself represented the British army at Lord Widgery's inquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in January 1972. Widgery produced probably the greatest official whitewash in 20th century British history. After a chat with the prime minister, Edward Heath, he exonerated the Parachute Regiment of the charge of killing 13 unarmed civilians.
This judgement was contested by a handful of investigative journalists-notably Eamonn McCann on Socialist Worker and the Sunday Times Insight team. But it took almost a generation for the truth about the massacre to become generally accepted.
In retrospect no one should be surprised that Hutton, an Ulster Unionist barrister reared in a tradition that unquestioningly identifies with the government and the security forces, should have delivered such a cravenly official report.
But what is astonishing is how universally Hutton has been condemned. From a purely technical point of view, he made two stupid mistakes. First of all, to be truly useful to the government, Hutton should have at least adopted the appearance of balance. To be credible his report should have slapped Tony Blair and his minions on the wrist while reserving its main fire for the BBC. Secondly, and more importantly, the open way in which the inquiry was conducted undermined the final report.
It meant that, when Hutton upheld Downing Street, his findings were flagrantly contradicted by the evidence produced during the hearings. Successful cover-ups take place behind closed doors.
But more than the crudeness of the whitewash lies behind the contempt with which Hutton was greeted. There have been huge changes in British political culture since the early 1990s. After a decade or more of Tory sleaze and Blairite spin, the idea that the word of the prime minister, civil servants and intelligence officials should be taken on trust may mean something to a 72 year old retired law lord, but not to anyone else.
And, of course, all Hutton's word chopping can't alter the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been discovered in Iraq. The day he exonerated Blair and the Secret Intelligence Service, David Kay, the neo-con ex-chief of the Iraq Survey Group, was admitting in Washington the complete failure of Anglo-American intelligence over Iraq. It is the lies that led us into war and the present bloody and chaotic occupation of Iraq that remain the fundamental issue. That's why the opinion polls are running so massively against the government and Hutton.
The Hutton report has only served to increase the crisis of political representation, further to widen the gap between the political elite and millions of voters. Conventional commentators are arguing that Blair emerged strengthened from last week.
The Financial Times, to its shame one of the few papers to defend Hutton, argued that 'at the end of an extraordinary week in politics, it is Mr Blair's durability, rather than his mortality, that is the dominant theme'. The facts suggest something rather different. The vote on tuition fees on Tuesday last week saw Blair's huge majority in the House of Commons cut from 161 to five.
To put this in perspective, let's compare this with the most famous parliamentary rebellion of the last century, the vote that brought Neville Chamberlain down in May 1940.
Then, 41 government MPs voted with the Opposition, reducing Chamberlain's majority to 81. Last week 72 MPs voted against the government. Tony Blair's insistence on forcing through neo-liberal and imperialist policies threatens to break his huge parliamentary majority up.
As with the vote to go to war in March last year, he was only saved thanks to the intervention of Gordon Brown. The Financial Times estimates his effective majority is now only 40. In the British political system a prime minister holds office so long as he or she maintains the confidence of his or her own MPs and cabinet. Blair is reaching the point at which Thatcher arrived in the late 1980s, where he has become vulnerable to rebellion in his own ranks. This doesn't mean that he is bound to fall in the next few months.
Maybe he can cut a deal with Brown that will keep the ship afloat till the next election. But Brown's price may be too high for Blair. But, whether Blair manages to limp on or is finally brought down by a cabinet rebellion, the gap between official politics and millions of voters will remain. The challenge for those who have come together to form the Respect coalition of the radical left is to begin to fill it.
Alex Callinicos is the author of The New Mandarins of American Power (£13.99) and The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (£5.99). Both are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com