The Sketch: Defence Secretary is lost in translation

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The Independent Online

Geoff Hoon took his backbench for granted yesterday and paid the penalty. His statement - as bland and safe as students of Hoon have ever seen - came across differently from the way he'd hoped.

Geoff Hoon took his backbench for granted yesterday and paid the penalty. His statement - as bland and safe as students of Hoon have ever seen - came across differently from the way he'd hoped.

Whatever he said, the Labour ranks heard the following: "The House will want to know that George Bush has devised a plan to proceed against Fallujah with every kind of air strike, artillery bombardment and heavy armour.

"Christ only knows the carnage we're heading for so, understandably, he has asked us in Britain to show he's not the only one responsible. He has a presidential election coming up, as the House knows.

"Not unreasonably, he wants to dramatise for his electors the fact that Tony Blair, in particular, and the British people in general are still shoulder to shoulder on the Iraq project. Anyway, before we abolish the Black Watch we've decided to send it up to support George Bush's re-election campaign and to facilitate his slaughter strategy and that's what I've come here to tell you today."

Speak if you must, but there's nothing you dumb bench-monkeys can do about it. Especially you in the white shirt and black top."

Normally this would be greeted with weary exasperation from the usual suspects. Yesterday was different and Jenny Tonge must take the credit for it. She asked what penalty we would suffer if we didn't accede to the American request. Mr Hoon said there wouldn't be any penalty but that "we would have failed in our duty to an ally" if we didn't play along.

Everyone realised in one go that the decision had already been made and following on from Annabelle Ewing's question that there was no military justification for the move. Ms Ewing asked pungently: "How can it be 'operationally necessary' for 650 British troops to be sent north when there are 130,000 American troops already there?"

Not a single Labour backbencher fully supported the minister, and few Tories did either.

Sir Peter Tapsell rose magnificently from his bath chair and issued a parliamentary denunciation that shook the back of Mr Hoon's teeth.

Was it not self-deluding to describe the inhabitants of Fallujah as terrorists, he asked loudly. They were, he said, Sunni nationalists who would describe themselves as Arab patriots.

"When I told the minister of the difficulties of fighting in Arab towns - from personal experience - he said it depended what side the civilian population was on." Sir Peter's voice trembled a little, I think just before he finished. "Well, he knows the answer to that now!"

Among the barbs Mr Hoon had to endure; Geraldine Smith talked of "widespread alarm among loyalists" and Alan Simpson said the minister reminded him of the Oklahoma maiden of doubtful morality who sang "I'm just a girl who can't say no"

The worm that is the Labour backbench turned yesterday. Will it keep turning, until it goes along in its original direction? Does Andrew MacKinlay's warning not to push the party any further carry weight?

But it was Sir Peter's contribution that made us realise how much damage has been done recently by young men in power.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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