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Friday, 2 March, 2001, 16:14 GMT
Geoff Hoon: Defence Secretary

By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

Geoff Hoon falls into the category of politician widely seen as one to watch.

The softly spoken former barrister and onetime MEP has slipped up the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party and into government almost unnoticed.

From winning his Nottinghamshire seat of Ashfield in 1992, Mr Hoon was propelled into the role of Labour's European expert.

His time as a Euro-MP and his training as a lawyer made him invaluable during the tumultuous passage of the Maastricht Bill through the 1992-1997 parliament.

Rapid rise

Mr Hoon's rise has been rapid since then.

Following Labour's landslide victory in May 1997 he was promoted to be Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine's voice in the Commons.

A year later he became minister of state in the lord chancellor's department.

After the sudden death of Foreign Office Minister Derek Fatchett, Mr Hoon was moved to the Foreign Office.

There he was initially minister of state with responsibility for Asia, the Pacific, Middle East and North Africa.

But in October 1999 he won promotion to the cabinet as defence secretary.

Shunned by Brown?

Prior to his promotion to the Foreign Office there was repeated speculation that he would be given the job of paymaster general under Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Depending on which account you read, he stayed with Lord Irvine either because the lord chancellor insisted or because Mr Brown did.

Geoff Hoon became Defence Secretary in 1999
Geoff Hoon became Defence Secretary in 1999
The break into cabinet came when George Robertson was made Nato secretary general, prompting a reshuffle.

Mr Hoon's promotion to Mr Roberston's former brief was greeted with a degree of surprise.

Many thought the job would go to the then Defence Minister John Reid, who has subsequently become Northern Ireland secretary.

But in government Mr Hoon has proved a good operator with a lawyer's eye for detail.

Tough operator

He won respect from his colleagues in the way he secured a 1.25bn increase from the Treasury in investment in the armed forces over a three-year period.

He also proved himself a tough operator when British troops were committed in substantial numbers to the troubled African country of Sierra Leone.

During his tenure there has been tension over issues such as allowing women to fight at the frontline and gays in the military.

Ultimately the latter was resolved by a European Court of Human Rights ruling in September 1999, but opposition has continued.

Equal opportunities controversy

Women already serve in key positions in the military but the outgoing head of the armed forces, Sir Charles Guthrie, expressed scepticism as to the practical role of women in a battlefield situation.

Plans for a European rapid reaction force have sparked controversy
Plans for a European rapid reaction force have sparked controversy
Mr Hoon has also faced controversy over plans to develop a European rapid reaction force - a plan the government has insisted will not compromise the Nato alliance, but which many Tories and some US Republicans have hawkishly warned will do just that.

Like many family men and women who have come to Westminster, Mr Hoon has bemoaned the impact politics has on time with his family.

He has even said that his wife is extremely sceptical about politics.

Ultimate sacrifice

He is seen as ambitious enough to have, like other cabinet colleagues, shaved off a long-kept moustache allegedly for the New Labour cause.

More seriously, one of the problems that he will continue to face in the future is the unpopularity in some quarters over British policy towards Iraq.

Sanctions and the periodic military engagement over American and British imposed no-fly zones continue to be controversial and could affect Mr Hoon's standing within the Labour movement.

There is inevitable speculation that, given his quick rise to high office, he could possibly go all the way to Number 10 one day.

Profile raising?

That will depend on his ability to raise his profile.

Some pundits have also tipped him as a future foreign secretary - the job that Peter Mandelson always wanted but now seems to have lost hope of attaining.

It is a far cry from Mr Hoon's humble beginnings as a railwayman's son.

Political at 10

He has said that although his parents were not very political he was thinking through the principles of selling arms to apartheid-era South Africa in the early 1960s. He would have been about 10 at the time.

Winning a scholarship to Cambridge propelled Mr Hoon forward to a legal career as a barrister and lecturer.

He joined the Labour Party in 1977, becoming an MEP in 1983.

Mr Hoon married his wife Elaine in 1981. They have three children.

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