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Tensions flare between embattled Hoon and No 10
Nicholas Watt and Richard Norton-Taylor
Monday August 18, 2003
Tensions between Downing Street and the one-time Blairite favourite Geoff Hoon erupted yesterday on the eve of the unprecedented appearance of members of Tony Blair's inner circle at the Hutton inquiry.
The Hoon camp took grave exception to an attempt by Downing Street to wash its hands of responsibility for the handling of David Kelly, the government scientist whose apparent suicide prompted the inquiry.
Over the weekend Downing Street made clear that in his appearance before the inquiry tomorrow Alastair Campbell would distance himself from one of Lord Hutton's main lines of inquiry - the question of who leaked Dr Kelly's name.
It is understood that the No 10 communications director will admit he had approved the "naming strategy", but only after it had been proposed by Mr Hoon's department, the Ministry of Defence.
The apparent spinning operation on behalf of Mr Campbell proved too much for some. One Whitehall source said: "These kinds of briefings are not helpful or productive."
Mr Hoon's allies say he will make a "vigorous defence" of his decisions and make clear to what extent he was involved in the more controversial questions. He has professed to know nothing about the "naming strategy", which was believed to have been approved by Sir Kevin Tebbit, the MoD's most senior civil servant.
Crucial details about the naming of Dr Kelly are likely to emerge today when Pam Teare, the MoD's director of news, appears before the inquiry. MoD officials will nervously await her performance in front of the inquiry's formi dable counsel, James Dingemans QC, who will want to shed light on the highly controversial strategy.
Mr Hoon is already facing severe pressure after a document published last week showed he overruled Sir Kevin to force Dr Kelly to appear in public before MPs. Sir Kevin will appear on Wednesday, a key moment for Mr Hoon because any hint of unease from such a senior civil servant would prove highly damaging for the defence secretary.
The atmosphere in the MoD is said to be deeply uncomfortable, with one defence source saying he felt like having a shower all the time. Mr Hoon is regarded as a distant and rather cold and stiff person with few enthusiastic supporters in the department.
The briefings and counter-briefings ahead of this week's unprecedented public grilling of five prime ministerial aides shows the unease sweeping Whitehall as officials and ministers fight to save their reputations. The prime minister, who is not expected to give evidence until he returns from his Barbados holiday next week, may find that he has to defend his name earlier than expected.
Lord Hutton has decided that all documents submitted to the inquiry should be published on Thursday. Mr Blair, who was personally implicated in the Kelly affair for the first time last week when a document showed that he had asked for the scientist to face further questioning, may find that Downing Street memos chronicling his involvement make deeply uncomfortable reading in public.
A significant moment is likely to come tomorrow when Mr Campbell is questioned about whether he personally urged John Scarlett, chairman of the joint intelligence committee - whom Mr Campbell has described as a "mate" - to "sex up" the dossier and what he knew of the controversial 45-minute claim at the heart of the affair.
The Hutton inquiry heard last week that the language surrounding the claim that Iraq forces could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so was hardened as drafts of the dossier were revised. The strongest language, claiming that the weapons could be "ready" within 45 minutes, was used in the foreword - signed by Tony Blair.