The Sketch: The audible gasp woke even those who had dozed off for 45 minutes

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The Independent Online

What is it with 45 minutes and Iraq? First, the Government gets into trouble for claiming Saddam could launch WMD in three quarters of an hour.

Then we find out that Andrew Gilligan, the Beeb's defence correspondent, met Dr David Kelly for 45 minutes in their Coke-and-Appletise conflab in the Charing Cross Hotel.

Yesterday, it turned out that Geoff Hoon, the soon-to-be-ex-Defence Secretary, had insisted that Dr Kelly should be interviewed by MPs for no longer than... yup, 45 minutes. Spooky.

Mr Hoon's gentle instruction to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee emerged when its chairman, Donald Anderson, gave evidence to the Hutton inquiry for the first time.

As he ran through his CV, Mr Anderson had the air of somebody who is - how shall we put it? - absent-minded. When he said that he had "lost a constituency in 1970", it sounded as though he had simply misplaced it down the back of the sofa.

Mr Anderson was rather proud of the fact that "the executive" (a grand term he used frequently to describe the Government) had tried to depose him as chairman of the committee.

But it became clear yesterday that the whips had been wasting their time. The MP for Swansea East was much more useful in post precisely because he had no idea what was going on half the time.

"I'm not a general leading an army," he said, referring to his fractious charges on the committee. "I'm at best first among equals. I can't impose my will... I'm sometimes no more than a secretary."

With is bald pate and hunched frame, Mr Anderson may look like Mr Burns, the slimy boss in The Simpsons. But has all the cunning and guile of a three-toed sloth.

When Mr Hoon told the committee not to ask Dr Kelly any tricky questions about government claims on WMD, the legislature's defiant response to the executive was... it was a "reasonable" request.

Surveying the rank ineptitude of the Select Committee, Lord Hutton couldn't resist asking whether MPs had ever considered instructing lawyers to put questions on their behalf.

"Has consideration ever been given to that procedure? I thought I would just raise it with you," he asked nonchalantly.

Mr Anderson replied that MPs would be "very jealous if their ability to put questions were taken by a professional unit... My own view is that... it would be irrelevant." As Sir Kevin Tebbit would say, Your word, Mr Anderson.

By the time an anonymous looking official from the FCO took to the witness box late in the afternoon, many in court were nodding off, the bank holiday weekend beckoning temptingly.

At first the man's name was flashed up on screen as "Ben Bradshaw". Obviously, the stenographers have never seen the extravagantly coiffured junior minister. The man was in fact David Broucher, formerly Our Man in Prague and an expert on disarmament. His presence at the inquiry, as a last-minute witness, was something of a mystery.

But his importance became all too clear as he explained how Dr Kelly had "popped in" to his office in Geneva on 27 February.

At the end of their chat, Dr Kelly said he "would probably be found dead in the woods" if there was war on Iraq.

Court 73 heard its first audible gasp of the whole inquiry. Was Dr Kelly implying he would be bumped off? Do spooks "hit" in the woods? Surely not.