Hoon likely to be fall guy despite No 10's vital role

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The barrage of criticism that Geoff Hoon is facing is unremitting. The Secretary of State for Defence has been blamed for almost every set-back for the British forces in Iraq. A day rarely goes by without a call for his resignation.

But it is what happens in the next 48 hours, after the Hutton report comes out, which is crucial. With Alastair Campbell already gone, Mr Hoon is widely predicted to be the most high-profile casualty of the whole affair. If he is not sacked, go the rumours, he will be shunted off to the Siberia of Northern Ireland.

The deliberate undermining of Mr Hoon by Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons, last weekend - failing to say that his colleague should not resign over failure of equipment supplies during the Iraq conflict - is seen as a very public sign that Downing Street is more than ready to ditch him. However, those who want Mr Hoon to fall on his sword are perhaps celebrating too soon. The Defence Secretary is not prepared, say colleagues close to him, to be a willing sacrifice on behalf of Downing Street.

It is ironic, in many ways, that this is the state of affairs, for Mr Hoon had been a firm believer in the "project" since his days as a backbencher, and has served Tony Blair faithfully. That was recognised by the Prime Minister. Mr Hoon's rise has been relatively swift and, until now, painless. Like Mr Blair, a lawyer by profession, he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary for the Lord Chancellor's Department, to try to look after Derry Irvine. He moved to the Foreign Office on the death of Derek Fatchett in 1999, and became minister for Europe, and was then promoted again to take over the defence portfolio the same year.

According to Whitehall lore, No 10 began to regard the post of Defence Secretary with increasing interest after the Kosovo conflict. There were endless photo opportunities for the incumbent, George Robertson, with British troops and Kosovar refugees pleading to be returned to a liberated homeland. Surely those plaudits should have belonged, by rights, to the Prime Minister, said his advisers. It is noticeable that with Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr Hoon had taken the back seat on such matters, and it is now Mr Blair who can look martial with backdrops of soldiers.

Mr Hoon maintained that emollience during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, with he and Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said to be loyally backing Mr Blair's line on Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction in the face of scepticism from many colleagues in the Cabinet.

After initial hesitation, the military commanders also began to get on quite well with Mr Hoon, mainly because he was good at badgering No 10 and the Treasury to get them funding for resources.

Then David Kelly came forward to reveal his contact with the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan, who had claimed that the Government had "sexed-up" last September's Iraq weapons dossier.

Downing Street repeatedly claimed that the Ministry of Defence was the "lead department" in the handling of the scientist, despite mutterings within the MoD and the Foreign Office that it was No 10 which was running the show. The full extent of that, however, was not to become clear until the Hutton inquiry.

According to the evidence he gave before Lord Hutton, Mr Hoon took a remarkably "hands-off" approach to that. According to the avenue Lord Hutton goes down, that can either help him greatly, or hinder him gravely in the final conclusions.

We now know that the crucial meeting took place in "the den" at Downing Street on 8 July, chaired by Mr Blair. Among those present were Mr Campbell, the Prime Minister's the communications chief; Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff; and John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, tasked with drawing up the September dossier - and no one from the MoD.

When Sir Kevin Tebbit, the permanent under-secretary at the MoD, arrived at 2.30pm, Mr Blair informed him that the meeting was over, and that Mr Powell would brief him on what was decided.

Sir Kevin told Lord Hutton that the feeling among his colleagues at the MoD was that there was nothing to be gained by naming Dr Kelly. But what had been decided at No 10 made the public disclosure of Dr Kelly's name inevitable.

The MoD was instructed to issue a press release with extensive details about Dr Kelly without actually naming him. At the same time, the press office was told they should confirm the name if it was put to them by journalists. There were persistent reports, then and subsequently, that at the same time Downing Street had leaked Dr Kelly's name to three "friendly" journalists. That was strongly denied by Mr Campbell when he gave evidence before Lord Hutton.

Mr Hoon admitted to the Hutton inquiry that Sir Kevin told him about the instructions to the press office, and he had approved the approach being taken. But he denied that there was any discussion about the actual question-and-answer formulae organised for press officers.

Mr Hoon also insisted that he was not involved in the decision to interview Dr Kelly by MoD officials, and he maintained that the scientist had accepted that his name would become public.

However, Lord Hutton also heard that Mr Hoon had overruled the recommendation of Sir Kevin that Dr Kelly should give evidence before the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee's investigation into the Iraq war, which held its hearings in private, and not the Foreign Affairs Committee, which held public, televised sessions. The Defence Secretary decreed that Dr Kelly should attend both. The resultant discomfiture of Dr Kelly was plain to see on the television images of his grilling.

The fact remains that it was Mr Hoon's department that confirmed Dr Kelly's name to the media, and it was his department which had a duty of care to the scientist. If Lord Hutton finds it has failed, Mr Hoon may well expect criticism.

DEFENCE SECRETARY'S CHANCES

WORST CASE SCENARIO:

Lord Hutton finds Mr Hoon heavily culpable both in the naming process and a failure in the MoD's duty of care towards Dr Kelly.

Mr Hoon is sacked by the Prime Minister, or forced to resign. He may, at that point, choose to declare his true feelings about people such as Mr Campbell. According to his friends, he may then decide to pursue an academic career in the United States where he was recently awarded Pentagon's highest award for a civilian.

MID-LEVEL SCENARIO:

Mr Hoon is criticised by Lord Hutton, but no more than many others. He is moved by the Prime Minister to Northern Ireland. He may decide to take up the post with the hope of recall to higher office at a later stage, or take the American option.

BEST CASE SCENARIO:

The Defence Secretary is completely vindicated by Lord Hutton and escapes criticism. He stays on as Defence Secretary, and, after a while, moves in to Trade and Industry, a post he is said to desire.

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