NS interview - Geoff Hoon

The Defence Secretary denies concern about Iraq is growing in Labour ranks and hints that we should

The cavernous Ministry of Defence on Whitehall has a new look. Gone are the overhead pipes that once gave the building the feel of an oversized submarine. In the internal courtyard, the mesh of old has been replaced by steel and glass. Now there is a gym and an atrium cafe. Some things, however, do not change. Geoff Hoon has become one of the longest-serving secretaries of state for defence - among recent incumbents, only Denis Healey did it for longer, in the 1960s. In his five years, Hoon has survived everything that has been thrown at him: a series of wars, a major strategy review, the Hutton inquiry. He is much lampooned in the media. The word "hapless" provides convenient alliteration.

In spite of it all, the man likened to a village lawyer affects serenity. I go to see him a week after he was forced to explain to MPs that the decision to move the Black Watch to central Iraq had not been designed to help George W Bush, Tony Blair's friend, in his hour of electoral need. Many on his own side mauled Hoon. He admits: "It didn't go down that well. But I was doing the right thing." The news, he said, had not been leaked maliciously by the military. It "came out for all the right reasons, because the army briefed the families of the possibility of the operation, as soon as they became aware of the possibility, before any specific decision had been taken". That put him in a difficult position, amid reports, officially denied, that army chiefs were unhappy about the idea. By the time he confirmed the redeployment, "people appreciated that we had gone out of our way to inform parliament and to provide as much information as we could at the time".

To clear up one point, will the Black Watch be home by Christmas? "Yes," he replies. By "home", what does he mean? "Physically back home with their families." Come what may? "Yes. There is no question that they themselves will be going back, and I think it is unlikely that they will need to be replaced, not least because, given the nature of the task they have been asked to fulfil, I don't see any reason why that should require them to be there any longer.

"I can't absolutely close off the possibility that there might have to be replacements, but it will not be the Black Watch. It would have to be someone else, and I think that's unlikely."

Under proposed major changes to the structure of the armed forces, the government plans to merge two of the six Scottish infantry regiments and bring all five remaining units under the umbrella of a single "super-regiment". Hoon says: "The amalgamation of the battalions in Scotland will allow their character to continue. The Black Watch will still be a single battalion . . . they can still maintain all of their identity as part of a larger reorganisation." Although a final decision, the minister says, has not been taken, "I see absolutely no reason why that cannot happen."

The main task of US and UK forces now in Iraq, says Hoon, is to help ensure that elections planned for January can take place. He points to Samara where, he recalls, "Terrorists in parts of the city had the upper hand. Now there appears to be real progress in terms of local people taking responsibility for the organisation of their own city and looking to holding elections there. I have never suggested that there is a purely military solution to this problem. There are foreign fighters in places like Fallujah. They will undoubtedly have to be dealt with, but there are equally people in Fallujah who are long-term residents of that city and who will have to be part of the solution . . . There needs to be a military approach, and a political approach."

How bad would things have to get for the elections to be postponed? "I'm not at all pessimistic," he replies, and then gives me my first admonishment. "You're engaging in a very negative way. We need to ensure that there is the prospect of elections, and we are doing all we can to achieve that. Which is why, although it was never an easy decision, deploying the Black Watch was essential to allow that process to be completed."

I suggest that concern within Labour ranks about Iraq is greater now than at any other time. He replies with tut-tut number two. "Your question proceeds on a false basis, if you forgive me for saying so. Those who judged military action was the right thing to do at the time still broadly take that view. I don't think there's been any falling off of support among those people . . . I accept that there is concern since that time about the level of attacks, the kidnappings, the violence, the level of the insurgency. These are all things we have to deal with."

Why exactly did Britain go to war? "We took action because of the failure of Saddam Hussein and his regime to co-operate with the UN resolutions over a number of years." So it was non-compliance? "It was non-compliance, yes." And that the Iraqis didn't have any weapons of mass destruction doesn't materially affect this? Hoon sighs. "In a technical sense, no . . . This was a view of Iraq shared by all 15 members of the Security Council who passed [UN Resolution] 1441. It was widely shared internationally. It appears to have been shared by large parts of the Iraqi regime itself. So that was the state of international knowledge at the time."

This is the standard fall-back position. But as Lord Butler pointed out, not a single intelligence assessment was made between December 2002 and the start of war in March 2003. Hoon suggests none was necessary. From his time as a Foreign Office minister, in May 1999, "I was seeing not just single assessments, but solid assumptions by intelligence communities. This was not an isolated piece of intelligence, this was a consistent pattern over years." If that were the case, was Hoon asked for his input into the final legal advice? Butler revealed that Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, based his final advice to the cabinet on Blair's say-so about WMDs. The full details are still to be disclosed. Those involved in the war have tired of such questions. "I'm perfectly happy to have this kind of discussion if that's what you want, but I don't honestly see any point," Hoon retorts. "OK, the New Statesman has an agenda . . . if you want to keep on going on and on about this, that's up to you."

I suggest that concerns over the legality of war extend slightly beyond the NS. So I put the question again: when the Prime Minister was asked for his determination by the Attorney General, was Hoon's advice sought? "My responsibility is not to give the government legal advice." So the answer is no? "On the legality, that is nothing to do with ministers . . ."

Nine months ago, it was conventional wisdom to assume that Hoon would be Blair's fall guy for the Hutton inquiry. Yet it did not turn out that way: each member of the government was exonerated. I ask the Defence Secretary if his survival had surprised him. "I was disappointed that so many people rushed to judgement, that they didn't particularly pay much regard to what I had said in evidence. The fact is that Lord Hutton and others who have looked into it have not made any personal criticism of my conduct or my behaviour." However, he adds quizzically: "I accept that politics is a rough business. There are people who have resigned even though perhaps they felt they were in the right."

After everything that has happened, does Hoon have any regrets about the whole Iraq conflict?

On the road to war, no. "I don't think we could have given Saddam any greater opportunity to co-operate than was provided." He admits one decision, following the invasion, was wrong: the disbanding of the Iraqi army. "The army in Iraq might have provided a better transition in terms of stability than some of the decisions that were at the time taken. Having said that, we knew that the Iraqi army was politically led. We knew that Saddam greatly admired the way that Stalin had organised the military. He had the equivalent of political commissars in the army. We were not to know necessarily who those people were."

We end our interview by talking of Blair's legacy; five wars in his first six years is a remarkable statistic. "It is partly inevitably the consequence of the end of the cold war," Hoon notes. "If you start with the break-up of Yugoslavia and look at the impact of a global terrorist organisation, able to challenge the most powerful state in the world on its own territory, it is perhaps not surprising in that context that our armed forces have been very busy in the five-year period that I've been here."

Many believe the controversy over Iraq will make future British governments more reluctant to intervene militarily. The minister disagrees. "I suspect that all sophisticated countries with significant military are going to be involved in these kinds of operations at least for the foreseeable future." The prospect of more wars might worry some in the military, already bothered by overstretch and problems in retaining troops. It would alarm many in his own party. But Hoon has not survived as long as he has done by letting any of that get him down.