The Sketch: Hoon's defence reaches the highest peaks of obfuscation

Simon Carr

11 May 2004

We've only been wandering in the foothills of Geoff Hoon, his heights reveal themselves reluctantly. It is worth the wait. During the Hutton inquiry, he said he had not seen the press headlines about the 45-minute threat Iraq was posing. Why not? He was in Poland, he said. The fax machine had run out of paper. The carrier pigeons were ill. The forked stick was broken. That moment deserves anthologising in any history of British politics.

Yesterday, he revealed an even higher peak of obfuscation. He said he hadn't seen the crucial Red Cross report until the other day because it had been given to the Government "in confidence". How about that? No? Then how about this? The Red Cross was generally happy with conditions for Iraqi detainees. Or this: the Minister of Defence hadn't read their report because it was confidential, the Prime Minister hadn't read the report because it was confidential, and neither of them had read it because all the issues in the report had already been dealt with. And anyway, it was an "interim report". And anyway it was "a letter". And anyway, it was a "leaked report".

He said: "To see former government ministers sitting on the front bench waving a leaked report as if a leaked report proved anything - they should grow up."

That was a flash of temperament, almost a sign of personality. It was so unlike Mr Hoon that we must conclude something unusual is going on.

Ann Clwyd asked why she hadn't been told about the allegations of torture as she had been appointed by Tony Blair as special envoy to Iraq with responsibility for human rights. She received no answer. Oddly enough, if anyone resigns it will probably be her.

Speaking of special envoys, we did learn that Jeremy Greenstock had seen the report at an early stage. He was one of the people who hadn't told the Prime Minister about any of this. As he, too, was Mr Blair's special envoy, it makes you wonder how special these envoys are. They either hear nothing or say nothing.

In other exchanges, Adam Price pointed out that Edward Heath had banned the use of hooding prisoners more than 30 years ago. When did the policy change, he asked. "The policy did not change," Mr Hoon said, to widespread puzzlement.

John Maples repeated Mr Soames' question: When exactly did he see the report? Mr Hoon did not address this question. He had been drawing a distinction between having "read" the report and having "received" the report. This is so trivial it will turn out to be crucial.

And Ronnie Campbell brought up the case of one of his constituents who had been made to parade naked in front of his superiors while they made fun of his private parts. If men refused to jeer, they were punched in the face. If this is what our troops do to each other, it's not surprising what they do to anyone else.