Confusion grows as minister insists 45-minute claim was 'not a big issue'

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Geoff Hoon spent a hectic day yesterday being interrogated by MPs and the media about the increasing confusion surrounding the Government's justification for war. And, to round it off, the Defence Secretary then had a meeting with relatives of a group of military policemen killed in Iraq last June.

Mr Hoon was repeatedly asked why he and his colleagues in the Government did nothing to rectify the false alarm that Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction could strike British bases in Cyprus within 45 minutes.

The Conservatives accused him of "glaring contradictions", and demanded an investigation into his claim that he was unaware of newspaper headlines such as "45 minutes from doom" in The Sun.

The allegation that Saddam Hussein could deploy WMD within that time was made in the September dossier, next to the claim that his missiles had the range to strike Cyprus. It was a crucial factor which helped persuade many MPs to vote for war.

It has since been disclosed that the claim related to battlefield weapons with a maximum range of about 40 miles. This fact was known by Mr Hoon, and Robin Cook, while he was still in the Cabinet, but not the Prime Minister.

During Mr Hoon's appearance before the Defence Select Committee yesterday, Sir Peter Viggers, a former Tory defence minister, quoted evidence from the Hutton inquiry showing that Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, had e-mailed Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's communications chief at the time, asking: "Alastair, what'll be the headlines in the London Evening Standard on the day of publication? What do we want it to be?"

The headline was: "45 minutes from attack".

Sir Peter wanted to know why Mr Hoon had not corrected the "misleading" claim when he knew it referred to weapons such as artillery shells.

Mr Hoon insisted that the first time he learnt about the erroneous interpretation was "very recently" when he was watching a BBC Panorama programme, and the front page of The Sun was flashed up.

But the Defence Secretary had been asked about the matter during the Hutton inquiry on 22 September. Nicholas Soames, the shadow Defence Secretary, said: "Geoff Hoon's comments today seem to contradict what he told the Hutton inquiry. Did he know what the papers reported about the 45-minutes claim, or not? It seems inconceivable that he could not have been informed."

Mr Hoon said that he missed the newspaper reports because he was on an official visit to Poland and Ukraine, and did not receive the media cuttings. The reason the Government had not sought to rectify the newspaper reports, he said, was because, in his experience, the media were loath to carry corrections.

Crispin Blunt, a Conservative member of the committee, said he had been in Poland with a Tory defence spokesman when cuttings were sent by the press office. He asked Mr Hoon to check whether he was right in his claim that no cuttings were sent.

Earlier, in an interview, Mr Hoon was asked who was to "blame" for not informing Mr Blair that the 45-minutes threat only referred to battlefield weapons. He said: "I don't believe there is a question of blame. The question of what kind of weapons system could deliver weapons of mass destruction was not something of any great debate at the time."

He added: "I obviously brief the Prime Minister on a regular basis and had this been a significant issue in terms of the decision to take the country to war, I am sure that this issue would have arisen between us." Michael Ancram, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said he found it "very hard to believe" that Mr Hoon did not tell the Prime Minister what he knew. He added: "It beggars belief that on the eve of going to war the Prime Minister did not have the information that was available to Robin Cook."

Later, Mr Hoon met families of six Royal Military Policemen shot dead in southern Iraq, and said he had not ruled out a public inquiry into the deaths. Tony Hamilton-Jewell, 57, whose 41-year-old brother Simon died in the attack, said: "Mr Hoon... has admitted that there have been failings and that is the sort of thing that needs to be addressed."