Eagerness to help Blair backfires on Hoon

One by one, the ambitious young bloods who set out to remould the Labour Party are giving way to the old guard they once displaced. Andy McSmith reports
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Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, has New Labour written all over him, which helps explain his rapid promotion to cabinet rank, but it is no guarantee now that he will survive the crisis created by the appalling death of Dr David Kelly.

Mr Hoon's demeanour, when he berated a photographer for harassing him outside his Derbyshire home on Friday, or when he refused to answer questions on Dr Kelly at a press conference on Thursday, points to a man who is feeling the intense heat of a political crisis.

For those determined to see someone in the Government take the blame for the Kelly affair, Mr Hoon is now the prime target, though he never asked to be drawn into it.

He became involved when Dr Kelly, a scientist paid by the Foreign Office but working for an offshoot of the Ministry of Defence, confessed to his superiors that he was the probable source of a report by the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan, alleging that intelligence reports on Iraq had been doctored for political purposes by Tony Blair's staff.

Last week, the ministry put out a terse statement listing some of the things they did not do to Dr Kelly, contrary to rumour. They did not, for instance, threaten his pension, or tell him he could be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, or make him stay in a government "safe house".

Having questioned Dr Kelly twice and given him a warning, the department released enough details about him to make it possible for outsiders to guess who he might be. The ministry's press office was told that anyone who rang up with a name would be told whether it was the right name or not. By this indirect means, Dr Kelly's name was made public against his wishes - paving the way for accusations that, in Mr Hoon's eagerness to help Downing Street in a feud with the BBC, he contributed to events that drove Dr Kelly to suicide.

Such crises usually follow the same pattern, with the minister at the centre clinging to office through the worst of it, only to resign suddenly at a time when the heat seems to be off. This suggests that Mr Hoon will stay for August, but the autumn could see yet another cabinet resignation.

Even if he stays, it will be a lonelier Tony Blair who returns to Downing Street in the autumn. He is going to lose the familiar figure of Alastair Campbell, one of his oldest and closest friends in politics. His other most senior adviser, Jonathan Powell, is also rumoured to be restless.

When in 1994, after the sudden death of John Smith, a band of friends grouped around Tony Blair to take hold of the Labour Party, Mr Campbell and Mr Powell left well-paid jobs with good career prospects, to help run Mr Blair's private office, while Peter Mandelson, then a backbench Labour MP, was delegated to organise the party's headquarters and plan the election.

Six other junior MPs, all elected for the first time in 1992, were marked out for rapid promotion: Geoff Hoon, Tessa Jowell, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Estelle Morris and Barbara Roche. All except Mrs Roche made it to the Cabinet, but one by one, Mandelson, Byers, Morris and Milburn fell away.

Ten years further back, when Neil Kinnock took over the party leadership in 1984, a new Praetorian guard led by Charles Clarke, Patricia Hewitt and John Reid had moved in to run the leader's office. All were eclipsed by the younger rising stars of the Blair Project, but they are all back, key figures in the Cabinet.

In 1984, the office of the deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, was run by David Hill, who was regarded as old guard even then, but who is now the favourite to replace Alastair Campbell. Hill's partner, Hilary Coffman, is another long-serving adviser who was sacked on the day Tony Blair became leader, but brought back within weeks.

As part of the clear-out, Tony Blair removed the party's general secretary, Larry Whitty. One of his senior officials, Sally Morgan, also suspected of being old Labour, was transferred to Mr Blair's private office, where he could keep an eye on her.

Lord Whitty's replacement, Tom Sawyer, his even more Blairite successor, Margaret McDonagh, and almost all the department heads have gone, but Lord Whitty is still a minister and Baronesss Morgan is the Prime Minister's most senior political adviser after Mr Campbell and Mr Powell.

Why should the Labour Party be ringing out the new and ringing in the old? It may be that once it had shaken up the party, the Blair Project lacked a clear idea of what to do next, causing its leaders to lose heart.

Another explanation is that involvement in Labour politics in the 1980s, with its constant factional fighting and election defeats, was so awful that those who survived it can survive the pressures of high office better than the spoilt children of the Project.