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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 February, 2004, 15:39 GMT
Analysis: Hoon's 120 mins

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

It is as though Lord Hutton had never carried out his inquiry.

Only a week after he dropped his bombshell report clearing the government of "sexing up" its dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Tory leader Michael Howard has found cause to demand Tony Blair's resignation.

It is precisely the call he expected to be able to make after Lord Hutton's inquiry - but was unable to issue once the report cleared the government.

But now one of the central allegations has been dramatically re-opened.

Geoff Hoon
Mr Hoon was quizzed by MPs
Mr Howard and others are focusing on the revelation that, when the prime minister told MPs that Saddam could deploy WMD within 45 minutes, he had no idea - and worse made no attempt to find out - that it only referred to short range, battlefield missiles.

He made the claim alongside other statements that British bases were in range of Saddam's long range missiles.

Yet neither he nor Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon sought to correct newspaper headlines the following day declaring "45 minutes from doom".

Storm

Mr Hoon has admitted he did know the claim was only about short range missiles but, apparently, did not tell the prime minister because it was not important enough.

So, not surprisingly, the storm burst around Mr Hoon's head when he appeared before the defence committee of MPs.

And the charge from the MPs and the Tory leader, quite simply, is that it suited the government to allow, even if not actually encourage, such headlines to run and for the public to believe Saddam had the capability to launch long range WMD attacks.

It was, in effect they say, all part of a campaign to harden up the case for war.

It is an allegation the prime minister has vigorously rejected and insisted he has been cleared of by Lord Hutton.

'Holy grail'

His official spokesman stated that the 45 minute claim was never a big part of the government's case but had "taken on an almost holy grail status " since.

And in any case, there were plenty of other good reasons to deal with the threats posed by Iraq before the war, he said.

That did not stop Mr Hoon being given an extremely hard time by MPs in an occasionally ill-tempered clash.

He admitted he knew - at an undisclosed time between the dossier's publication and the start of war - precisely what sort of missiles the 45 minutes referred to but also said it had never been a big deal.

It only became a big deal months later when the BBC broadcast it report alleging the government had "sexed up" the dossier.

'Fruitless'

He also claimed he had not seen the dramatic headlines after the dossier was published because he was out of the country.

And in any case, he found it a pretty fruitless task attempting to get newspapers to correct things, he said.

In that case, asked Liberal Democrat committee member Mike Hancock, why did not the prime minister or he later take the opportunity to correct the impression when asked a specific Commons question about the link between 45 minutes and long range missiles just a few weeks later.

Mike Hancock MP
Mr Hancock is a member of the Commons defence committee
Mr Hoon looked distinctly uncomfortable and his answer that he "did not see the link in the answer" to the Commons question clearly did not satisfy Mr Hancock.

It is a complex and, some may believe, trivial point.

Yet it goes to the very heart of the row over Iraq's apparently non-existent WMD.

Under pressure?

It is an issue Lord Hutton touched on, but did not give a definitive answer to.

And now it is back with a vengeance.

Mr Hoon is, once again under pressure and Mr Howard clearly feels confident enough to believe he now has a clear enough case to demand Mr Blair considers his position.

The Hutton report may only be a week old, but already the whole issue of the alleged "sexing up" of the case for war is being revived.

The prime minister is clearly exasperated and angry at what he sees as an attempt to re-write history by those who did not like the outcome of Hutton.

But if he thinks those critics are about to give up, he clearly has another think coming.




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