Hoon avoids Kelly funeral to prevent media circus

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary and the man whose career is considered most at risk in the fallout from the David Kelly affair, will stay away from the weapons expert's funeral this week after talking to his widow.

With government sources admitting that Mr Hoon's presence would have triggered a "media circus", it is understood both sides are relieved the minister will be on holiday.

However, the decision triggered speculation the Kelly family had, in effect, warned Mr Hoon to stay away from the funeral ­ to be held near the Kelly's Oxfordshire home on Wednesday. The Ministry of Defence appeared to give substance to such claims when a spokeswoman said that the Defence Secretary's decision had been guided by the wishes of Janice, Dr Kelly's widow. "Mr Hoon has discussed with Mrs Kelly that he will be away," the spokeswoman said.

A government source added: "I think you can say that everyone is relieved that Geoff won't be going. Having a media circus wouldn't help anyone."

The MoD confirmed that the Government would be represented by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. Friends and colleagues from the MoD will also attend.

Mr Hoon will be called before the Hutton inquiry into Dr Kelly's death and is expected to be forced to resign if it transpires he had a role in revealing the weapons expert's name to the press. The Defence Secretary had claimed the day after Dr Kelly's body was found that "strenuous efforts" had been made to protect his anonymity, yet MoD officials carried out a "confirmation strategy", agreeing to confirm or deny names put to them.

The Independent understands that Mr Hoon's decision to take a holiday was a choice not available to all MoD officials, many of whom have been ordered to cancel their summer breaks to work in preparation for the Hutton inquiry. One senior MoD official said "the benefits of seniority" were not available to all in the department.

Mr Hoon has decided to go ahead with a long-planned holiday to the United States, despite warnings from cabinet colleagues that his actions could be seen as insensitive.

He has already faced criticism for going to the British Grand Prix two days after Dr Kelly was found dead in woods close to his Oxfordshire home. The minister was attacked earlier this year for taking a skiing holiday while troops were gathering in the desert ready for the invasion of Iraq. Mr Hoon is understood to have told colleagues he "would be in trouble at home" if he abandoned his holiday but some ministers were furious he would not be present to pay his respects to a senior official in his ministry.

One anonymous official said: "It is unbelievable that he is doing this. We have to sacrifice our private lives for the job but he won't do it." Mr Hoon could have broken his holiday to travel back at the taxpayers' expense because it would be seen as an official duty.

Mr Prescott refused to comment in detail on the decision. "Everyone has to have their holidays. The funeral will be on Wednesday, I will be attending on behalf of the Government and I think we should leave those comments there." he told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost programme. "And after all, it is the funeral this week and I think we should be thinking of those circumstances and concentrating on that."

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