British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office faced allegations that it had sought to smear a dead government weapons expert at the center of a row over how Britain went to war on Iraq, by describing him as a Walter Mitty-style fantasist.
The latest twist in a controversy that has bedeviled Blair came after The Independent newspaper quoted a senior government source as saying scientist David Kelly "was a Walter Mitty".
British PM's office accused of smearing dead scientist
The comment refers to a shy, daydreaming hero, invented by US writer James Thurber in a 1941 short story, who indulges in an imaginary life of adventure doubling that of his day job as accountant.
The British newspaper report laid the government open to charges of a deliberate attempt to undermine the reputation of the scientist, whose apparent suicide last month has sparked the biggest political crisis of Blair's career.
Kelly, a Ministry of Defense expert on chemical and biological weapons, and a one-time UN weapons inspector in Iraq, died on July 17.
His apparent suicide came shortly after he was named as the source for a BBC report -- hotly denied by Blair -- alleging that the government had "sexed up" a September dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in order to make the case for war against Saddam Hussein more compelling. Kelly's funeral is set for Wednesday.
Downing Street admitted that an official did speak to The Independent about Kelly, though it said the conversation was not intended as an official briefing and did not reflect the government's view.
A spokeswoman suggested that comments made by the official may have been "misunderstood".
Initially, a Downing Street spokeswoman had said she did not know from where the Walter Mitty comment originated, but stressed that nobody with either "the prime minister's or anybody else in Downing Street's approval would say such a thing".
However, The Independent's deputy political editor, Paul Waugh, stood by his story, printed Monday, which he said had come from "a senior person within Downing Street".
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott voiced strong disapproval of any attempt to "spin" against the dead scientist.
Prescott, heading the government while Blair is on holiday in Barbados, said: "I trust that no one in government would comment on Dr Kelly at such a sensitive time."
Labour backbench MP and former actress Glenda Jackson said Tom Kelly should be sacked if he made the "unspeakable" remarks.
"That this kind of smear tactics should be coming out of Number 10 at this time is beneath contempt," she said on BBC radio.
Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrat party, said that if Tom Kelly was behind the Walter Mitty comment, then the spokesman's position was "untenable".
Meanwhile, a poll for The Times newspaper on Tuesday found support for Blair's Labour party was at 34 percent, which it called a 16-year low, and that 52 percent trust the prime minister little or not at all.
Labour remains, however, two percentage points ahead of the main opposition Conservatives, according to the Populus survey of 1,001 adults conducted by telephone over the weekend.
© Copyright 2003 AFP