The Sketch: Not consulted, not party to discussions and not aware: the minister for uncomfortable positions

"I was not party to their discussion," the Defence Secretary said - and he said it more frequently than you'd expect for a minister referring to a great scandal in his department. "I did not see the documents" was a useful variation, along with "I wasn't aware of that", "I wasn't consulted", "It was nothing to do with me" and "Alastair Campbell".

Downing Street, by Geoff Hoon's account, was all over the handling of the David Kelly affair. They were drafting press releases he wasn't shown, taking decisions he wasn't party to, holding meetings he didn't attend and developing strategies he didn't approve of.

None the less, there were moments during Mr Hoon's account of his non-involvement that made one gasp and stretch one's eyes. All he wanted to do, he told us, was treat Dr Kelly with fairness and consideration. The man had to be protected. He was an employee. It was out of the question that the ministry should name him until it was certain he was the sole source. It seemed rude to ask then why the ministry named him when no one knew he was the sole source? "I'm resisting the suggestion of any conspiracy, or strategy or plan to make his name known," Mr Hoon said. This is going to be a very difficult line to sustain when his own press office, with his knowledge and under the guidance of No 10, had developed a plan - or strategy or conspiracy - to do exactly that.

The MoD's press office had written a question and answer sheet to guide their dealings with the press. It was explicitly designed to reveal Dr Kelly's name. The line to take was an unusual one. "We don't normally do this," press officers were to tell journalists, "but if you ask us a series of names we will confirm it if you get the name right."

Mr Hoon said two things about this. First, it was inconceivable that his press officers would have read out this part of the Q&A to journalists (but it was, and we know it was, just what his press officers did do). And second: that the office had followed very carefully all MoD procedures. Mr Hoon was invited to repeat this assertion and he did so. How he can square this with the Q&A phrase "We don't normally do this" is unfathomable.

"I didn't see the Q&A," he told us more than once. He wasn't consulted and hadn't seen the drafts.

On the other hand, when James Dingemans, counsel for the inquiry, gently pointed out that the minister's special adviser knew exactly what was in the Q&A, Mr Hoon hurried to agree: "I was aware of the advice I'd been given. Of course, I wouldn't want to give an impression I didn't know what was in the Q&A." So gently had Mr Dingemans inserted his surgical probe that Mr Hoon didn't seem to realise what an uncomfortable position he was suddenly in.

He'll be sore this morning, that's for sure.

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

Comments