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Hoon sees end of road for cabinet career in Kelly inquiry

London, Aug. 17: British defence secretary Geoff Hoon has told close colleagues that he has accepted he must “carry the can” for the death of David Kelly, the government scientist at the centre of claims that Downing Street exaggerated the case for war on Iraq.

Hoon telephoned colleagues last week to tell them he expected to have to “fall on his sword” over the affair. Last week, the Hutton inquiry into Dr Kelly’s death disclosed that Hoon had overruled his most senior civil servant’s request that the scientist be spared a public grilling by the Commons’ foreign affairs committee.

The defence secretary told Sir Kevin Tebbit, permanent secretary at the ministry of defence, that Kelly would have to face MPs for “presentational” reasons.

Hoon has informed friends that he believes the disclosure, and the allegations that he was prepared to put political expediency ahead of Kelly’s welfare, spell doom for his cabinet career.

Despite mounting evidence that officials at No 10 and Tony Blair himself were intimately involved in pressure exerted on Kelly in the days before his apparent suicide, the defence secretary has made clear he intends to shoulder the blame.

“He’s told us he’s going to carry the can,” one close colleague said last night. “He said, ‘You don’t dump on the boss’.”

While Hoon’s allies insist that he will mount a stout defence of his actions when he appears before the Hutton inquiry, probably next week, the defence secretary has privately admitted that he believes his ministerial career is over. “Geoff knows you don’t come back from something like this,” said one friend.

Hoon’s acceptance of his fate will cheer No 10 as its most senior officials, including Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, prepare to give evidence to Lord Hutton this week.

The inquiry will be told that Blair made clear he wanted Kelly “handled within the MoD as a personnel matter” as soon as he was told that the weapons inspector had admitted to having met Andrew Gilligan, the defence correspondent for BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Gilligan’s allegations in reports on May 29 that the government had exaggerated the case for war in its September dossier triggered the row between Downing Street and the BBC.

Blair’s official spokesperson has repeatedly claimed that the MoD was the “lead department” in the handling of Kelly’s case and that the widely-criticised decision to release a statement leading to his identification last month was taken “in accordance with MoD procedures”. Downing Street officials are also preparing to tell the inquiry that they made “strenuous” efforts to keep the scientist’s name out of the public domain in the days after he had confessed to his MoD managers that he had met Gilligan.

Lord Hutton will be told of an approach by senior officials at No 10 to the intelligence and security committee, a group of MPs and peers appointed to oversee the intelligence and security services, with an offer to interview Kelly in absolute confidence about his meeting with Gilligan.

The Downing Street staff are expected to claim that the committee rejected the offer, on the grounds that it would leave its members open to charges of collusion and impropriety.

The committee insisted that the fact of such a meeting with an official — even if he was unnamed — should not be suppressed.

The committee’s insistence allegedly necessitated Hoon’s public statement that an unnamed official had come forward, which led in turn to Kelly’s speedy identification by the media. No 10 staff are expected to claim, however, that it was Hoon’s decision alone to allow Kelly’s public cross-examination before the foreign affairs committee.

It emerged last week that Hoon overruled Sir Kevin who had urged him to “resist” any request from MPs to interview Kelly in public. He asked Hoon to “show some regard for the man himself”, pointing out that he had “come forward voluntarily, is not used to being thrust into the public eye and is not on trial”.

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