New Forest East



By Jean Eaglesham

Financial Times – 9 September 2003

Geoff Hoon came under fire when he faced MPs for the first time since the furore arose over the Hutton inquiry. The defence secretary, fighting to save his career, found the Conservatives – and a few Labour rebels – determined to seize the opportunity to rub salt into his wounds. Virtually every issue at defence questions in the Commons was twisted back round to Mr Hoon's poor performance at the inquiry.

The Tories exploited the defence secretary's willingness at the inquiry to pass the buck to junior officials, as well as his failure to disclose his attendance at a crucial meeting concerning David Kelly.

Bernard Jenkin, the shadow defence secretary, asked whether Mr Hoon was "still playing the part of the 'not me guv' secretary of state" over Iraq. Had Mr Hoon failed to plan properly for the post-war reconstruction or simply forgotten a meeting about this had taken place? asked Mr Jenkin, generating Tory laughs and a Labour silence.

Julian Lewis, [shadow navy spokesman], brought the Ministry of Defence's agreement to confirm Mr Kelly's name into a question on potential reductions in the navy's strength. If Mr Hoon refused to announce such plans, Mr Lewis said, would he brief the MoD press office to confirm the right number to any journalist who volunteered it?

The barrage against Mr Hoon was not confined to the Tories. Robin Cook, who resigned from the cabinet over the Iraq war, asked Mr Hoon if he were "aware of the reservations of your defence intelligence staff on the September dossier?" If the defence secretary were aware, Mr Cook said, why did the published dossier not reflect such concerns?

Mr Hoon responded that intelligence issues of this kind had to be "resolved through the joint intelligence committee" – a partial reply that failed to satisfy MPs. But Mr Hoon yesterday showed no signs of planning to quit overnight. Asked how much longer he expected to remain defence secretary, he told BBC Radio 4's PM programme:

"For as long as the prime minister wants me to be in the job."