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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 October, 2003, 17:03 GMT 18:03 UK
Hoon receives muted response
By Mark Davies
BBC News Online political reporter in Bournemouth

As Geoff Hoon spoke to Labour conference there was almost a sense of uneasy embarrassment hanging in the air.

It was a bit like seeing your boss making a speech to the office when you know and he knows that he's heading for the high jump.

You can't look him in the face, and laugh uproariously at his bad jokes. Outside you whisper behind your hands.

Of course, no-one really does know whether the defence secretary will lose his job in the near future. Except perhaps Tony Blair.

Geoff Hoon
Many commentators believe Geoff Hoon's career is on the line
But after the devastating attack on his conduct by the lawyer representing the family of Dr David Kelly at the Hutton Inquiry, many commentators and delegates at Labour conference already regard Mr Hoon's departure as nigh on inevitable.

Where there is no doubt is that he arrived in Bournemouth in big trouble.

Then again, the prime minister was also facing a spot of bother when he checked in to his seafront hotel. He still is.

But when Mr Blair entered the conference hall on Tuesday, he entered a vortex of goodwill, with delegates happy to overlook current difficulties and give him an enormous big hug and lots of squelchy kisses.

No such luck for Mr Hoon. All he got was a few embarrassed coughs and a gentle pat on the shoulder.

Moving

There was a standing ovation though, as the defence secretary introduced Muff and Ahlam Sourani to the conference.

An Iraqi, Mr Sourani had been educated in the UK and was jailed by Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1970s after being accused of being a British collaborator.

He has lived in Britain since his release, and is now a regional officer for the Amicus union - and is to return to Iraq to help organise a trade union movement there.

There were moving moments as delegates rose to applaud Mr Sourani and his wife, with the compliment returned with victory signs from the stage.

But the rest of Mr Hoon's speech was received in a muted atmosphere. He took a sober approach, while delegates listened politely.

There was applause as he paid tribute to UK soldiers who have died in the Iraq conflict, and as he hailed what he said had been Labour's achievements in securing defence jobs.

Wild talk

Not surprisingly, he didn't mention the Hutton Inquiry.

It was a speech he had to get through. There had been wild talk outside that Mr Hoon would be barracked, that he was in for a rough ride.

As so often with such rumours, they proved unfounded.

But the ovation at the end was polite more than anything else, lasting less than 20 seconds.

Delegates don't really know what's going to happen to Mr Hoon - but you suspect they have a pretty good idea.




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