Following the weekend, when assorted hacks were trying to make out that Gordon Brown is poised to pull our troops from Basra, The Daily Mail continues the process today, with a piece headed: "We'll be out by 2008, British military chiefs tell the Iraqis".
But, while the Sunday Telegraph had it that we would be out by next May, the Mail has shortened the timescale, telling us that "British military chiefs" have drawn up plans to withdraw from the two remaining bases in southern Iraq by the end of this year. Furthermore, "the Daily Mail has learned" that this timetable "is set out in an official letter to the Iraqi government in Baghdad."
Building on this unsubstantiated assertion (by whom was the letter sent, to whom, for instance?), The Mail then tells us that "the plan" represents a far faster withdrawal than expected and will put British ministers on a collision course with Washington, where the UK's presence as a loyal ally in the controversial war in Iraq remains highly valued.
Then turning assertion and speculation into fact, we are gravely informed that, "the planned withdrawal from the base will therefore mark a major watershed, heralding an end to Britain's responsibility for security in the war-torn and volatile Basra province," and "…will leave British ministers open to charges of an ignominious retreat."
Only towards the end of the piece does the paper deign to print the now routine denial from "a spokesman" from the MoD who says: "Our policy on withdrawal from Iraq has not changed. Military planners routinely look at a range of options, and as we have always said, any withdrawal requires the conditions on the ground to be right."
But that does not stop the leader writer letting rip, revealing the Mail's real agenda with the heading: "This is a defeat for Blair, not our troops". Says the anonymous writer, "Now, it seems, virtually all British troops are to be pulled out from their bases in southern Iraq by the end of the year. This is no disgrace for them, for they could not have performed with more courage or skill in the cauldron of Basra."
It cites Dannatt, from his interview in the Mail last October, saying "our presence in Iraq, far from helping the security situation, is exacerbating it," and then, having convinced itself that Brown is indeed set on removing our troops, declares: "The correct decision has been taken … The verdict of history will surely be that our forces remained this long purely to save Mr Blair's face."
We do, however, get a far more measured piece this morning from Michael Evans in The Times, who tells us that "military commanders have been considering options to present to Gordon Brown when he becomes Prime Minister on June 27." He then tells us that "senior Ministry of Defence sources emphasised that the military was drawing up a number of options, but considered it 'wholly unlikely' that most British troops could be withdrawn in such a short timescale."
Also on the case is The Independent which also simply talks of "military chiefs" having drawn up plans to speed up the withdrawal of the vast majority of British troops from Iraq within 12 months. But it also concludes with the legend that the MoD had said that its policy on withdrawal from Iraq was unchanged and that it was still considering a number of options.
To give its due, The Guardian put this legend up front in its version of the story, with "government sources" stressing that the proposal was one of several options which the MoD was developing to present to Gordon Brown when he takes over as prime minister later this month.
There is, however, an alternative view. One newspaper blares the headline, "Five more years in Iraq, say defence papers", telling us that British troops will remain in Iraq for at least another five years. This is based on "a confidential planning document" drawn up by defence chiefs called the Operational Tour Plot. According to the newspaper, this reveals that troops will be serving on operations in the Gulf until at least 2012.
And the newspaper? Ah! This is The Sunday Telegraph, with the story written by Sean Rayment, the paper's very same defence correspondent who yesterday told us the troops would be out next year. But it was written on 7 April.
It seems a month is a long time in journalism.