CORONER Nicholas Gardiner last night promised he was no political stooge over the death of Government weapons inspector Dr David Kelly.

In an exclusive interview to mark his retirement, Mr Gardiner spoke for the first time about his controversial decision not to hold a full inquest into Dr Kelly’s death near his home in Southmoor.

Dr Kelly had been ‘outed’ as the source discrediting the Government’s claims over Iraq’s weapons capability and his death sparked myriad conspiracy theories.

Mr Gardiner’s decision following Lord Hutton’s inquiry was seen by some as further evidence of a cover-up.

Just last December the High Court refused a bid to order the Attorney General into re-opening the inquest and now Mr Gardiner revealed : “I was never under any political pressure.”

Mr Gardiner added: “Whatever conspiracy theories people bring forward – and I think they will be brought forward forever – I don’t think I would have done anything differently.

“My duty is to determine whether there are exceptional reasons that warrant an inquest and if I thought there had been, I would have.

“The Government was always very proper.”

There have been between 50,000 and 60,000 deaths since Mr Gardiner took over the role of Coroner from his father Thomas in 1981.

Of those, around 9,000 – 300 a year – have resulted in inquests. But the Dr Kelly case undoubtedly remains the most famous.

The 69-year-old, who will retire as Oxfordshire Coroner in April, said: “When I received a telephone call that day from Detective Superintendent Young telling me they had found the body, my heart hit my boots.”

Just before his death, Dr Kelly had been exposed as the source of a BBC news report questioning the grounds for war in Iraq.

But while a post mortem examination revealed his wrist had been slashed, some – including qualified doctors – questioned whether Dr Kelly had taken his own life. And the rumour mill went into overdrive.

Mr Gardiner opened the inquest into Dr Kelly’s death on July 21, 2003, three days after his body was discovered in woods at Harrowdown Hill, close to his home in Southmoor.

Prime Minister Tony Blair then commissioned the Hutton Inquiry which concluded Dr Kelly, 59, died from blood loss after cutting his wrist with a gardening knife.

But conspiracy theories continued, along with calls for an official inquest.

On March 16, 2004, Mr Gardiner announced that, after considering the Hutton report, there was “no exceptional reason” for the inquest to be resumed.

Asked whether he thinks Dr Kelly will ever receive an inquest, Mr Gardiner said: “While I think it is unlikely there will be one, you can never rule it out. I did and still do have tremendous sympathy for the poor man’s family.”