Weight of evidence increases the pressure on Hoon

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Indy Politics

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, is under increasing pressure from the evidence mounting up at the Hutton inquiry about his role in the events leading to the death of Dr David Kelly.

At the weekend, allies of Mr Hoon denied reports that he was ready to "fall on his sword" to protect Tony Blair, insisting that he would fight his corner when he appears before the inquiry, probably next week. But other ministers believe the evidence that has emerged so far has increased the likelihood that he will have to resign after Lord Hutton issues his report.

Yesterday, Sir Kevin Tebbit, the MoD's most senior official, distanced himself from his political boss by saying that he merely "acquiesced" in his decision that Dr Kelly should be thrust into the public spotlight by appearing before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Sir Kevin ended his evidence by saying: "The attendance at parliamentary committees is something that ministers had to decide." He repeated his warning, in a letter to Mr Hoon which emerged last week, that the MoD should have some regard for Dr Kelly because he was not "on trial".

Over the weekend of 5-6 July, Mr Hoon pressed Downing Street for a speedy decision on whether Dr Kelly should appear before MPs at a time when Tony Blair was still urging caution. Mr Hoon will be closely questioned at the inquiry over his view that it would be "presentationally" difficult for the Government to defend itself if Dr Kelly gave evidence in private.

Although Dr Kelly worked for the MoD, it was Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, rather than Mr Hoon who raised the question of Dr Kelly's employment rights at a critical meeting in the Prime Minister's study on 7 July.

Mr Hoon also suffered collateral damage when Alastair Campbell gave evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday. Mr Blair's director of communications criticised the "naming strategy" agreed by the MoD under which Dr Kelly's identity "dribbled out".

The inquiry was told that Mr Hoon's instinct was to take tough action against Dr Kelly even though he had volunteered the information that he had met the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan. Mr Campbell said the Defence Secretary's initial response was that "it was serious and a serious disciplinary matter, and had clearly caused the Government considerable difficulty and embarrassment".

The inquiry heard that Mr Hoon considered a form of "plea bargain" with Dr Kelly and documents reveal a plan at one point to ask him to make a public statement disavowing Mr Gilligan's claim that the warning that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons in 45 minutes had been added to the Government's dossier against the wishes of the intelligence services.

Mr Hoon has denied being responsible for unmasking the government scientist. In media interviews after Dr Kelly's death, he insisted that he had sought to protect his identity.

Allies of Mr Hoon insist he will mount a strong defence of his actions and is not on the verge of resigning. They say he believes that he behaved entirely appropriately in the circumstances prevailing at the time.

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