A mauling for the Defence Secretary

Last updated at 10:18 19 October 2004

Down in the cockpit of the Chamber, clutching hold of the despatch box like a torpedoed sailor to his rubber ring, stood Geoff Hoon.

The Defence Secretary had come to the House to explain that we may be about to lend George Bush a large part of the Black Watch. Oh dear.

Mr Hoon had a horrible hour. It was not only that he himself did badly, which he did, spectacularly. It was also that, between gulps and mumbled pauses, he was arguing a weak case, on behalf of the real villain of the piece - Tony Blair.

Labour MPs, Tory MPs, even the little Lib Dems, all lined up to take a biff at the Secretary of State. Yet as they swung their clenched fists, and the gymnasium punch-ball of Mr Hoon's head swung back and forth on its moorings, one sensed that the real target of their anger was the absent Prime Minister.

I have never seen a senior minister so overwhelmingly attacked by MPs over an hour. Only three voices were raised in his defence, and they were weak ones. Mike Gapes, a turkey-necked berk from Ilford South, was the only Labour MP to address Mr Hoon in a positive tone.

"Give him a job!" roared the shadow Secretary, Nicholas Soames. The two other pro-Hoon contributors were Quentin Davies (Con, Grantham) and John Bercow (Con, Buckingham), neither of whom really troubled the scorer. Mr Soames kept quiet, preferring to leave Messrs Davies and Bercow to their own grief.

Mr Hoon, even at the start of the session, was a rather peculiar colour: a purple, not only in his face, but also throughout the skin of his scalp, which showed up through his hair. He seemed to be on perma-blush, as though the statement he had read to the House was a cause of embarrassment.

He remained this odd tinge throughout the exchanges, although it did deepen at certain times. For instance, Jenny Tonge (Lib Dem, Richmond) asked, with deadly brevity, what penalties Britain would incur if we said "no" to Mr Bush.

Mr Hoon should have kept calm but instead he snapped: "We would have failed in our duty as an ally."

The House gasped at this melodramatic reply. Labour MPs, in particular, clucked and tutted. For Mr Hoon's answer was a clear indication that the decision to send the troops has already been made - despite the minister's assertions to the contrary. Mr Hoon glowed the colour of a ripe mulberry.

The start of his hour's questioning saw Jack Straw and David Blunkett on the front bench, to show support for Mr Hoon. The Cabinet ministers did not stay long.

Mr Hoon's assailants included some of the oldest dogs in the parliamentary Labour party, ancient, yellow-fanged beasts such as Frank Cook (Stockton N) and Swansea's Alan Williams - who noted that "the role of allies is a central area of dispute in the U.S. election". Even Dame Gerald Kaufman (Gorton) piped up, as delicate and fragrant and attractive as ever.

The level of flak from the Tory backbenches was little less impressive. Iain Duncan Smith (Con, Chingford), hardly an anti-American, found enough wiggle room to question the deployment. Crispin Blunt (Con, Reigate), normally one of the most proudly martial of toecap burnishers, also weighed in.

Andrew Mackinlay (Lab, Thurrock) made a magnificent, swirling little speech about the Blair Government pushing Labour MPs too far. Mr Hoon, by now the colour of a heavy Rioja, had little to say in response. We heard from Kenneth Clarke (Con, Rushcliffe), Robin Cook (Lab, Livingstone), Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) and Dennis Skinner (Lab, Bolsover). All opposed the deployment.

Alan Simpson (Lab, Nottingham South) said that Mr Hoon reminded him of that song in "Oklahoma!" about "I'm Just A Girl Who Can't Say No". Laughter.

Mr Hoon, with a slightly sad smile, replied that "Oklahoma!" was a little before his time. He seemed to have almost given up on arguments by now. It was almost hard to know whether to feel sorrier for him, or for the Black Watch.