Embarrassed and uncomfortable, Hoon feels the heat

As an exercise in proving it was situation normal, Geoff Hoon's decision to join yesterday's press conference to present the leaders of Iraq's Governing Council could hardly have had a more contrary effect.

A ripplepassed through the reporters at the Foreign Office when the name cards were placed on the platform and the Defence Secretary's name was unexpectedly among them.

Reporters had awaited Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and three Iraqis, among them the elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, on his way back from the UN in New York. They had not expected an opportunity to interrogate Mr Hoon on his role in the naming of Dr David Kelly.

He arrived looking uncomfortable. Mr Straw introduced the Iraqis, hailing the talks they had just held. His every utterance was prefaced "Geoff Hoon and I" - although the reason for Mr Hoon's presencewas not clarified. The subliminal message was rather: Mr Hoon is still a fully paid-up member of the Cabinet.

Thereafter every question, barring two that were put and answered in Arabic, was addressed to an ever more awkward Mr Hoon. Gamely, he tried to bat back the first volley.

"It is very important," he said, "to show respect to our guests rather than dealing with an inquiry to which I will give evidence in due course."

From then on, Mr Straw fielded every question, his colleague grimacing with embarrassment. "What was Mr Hoon's role in the Kelly affair?" "Could Mr Hoon please explain ..."

As Mr Straw flailed, trying to find a reporter who might be guaranteed not to ask about Mr Hoon, he ignored - among others - a frustrated Jon Snow from Channel 4. After just 15 minutes, Mr Straw drew proceedings to a close, at least 10 minutes early.

"Geoff Hoon and I," he said, "are off to a cabinet meeting on Iraq."

Mr Snow could not restrain himself, yelling out his question about the Defence Secretary's survivability. One of the foreign reporters shouted out in fury that he had come to hear about the Iraqi Governing Council.

So had we all - until Mr Hoon's presence changed the agenda.

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