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Beware Brown's briefers

Geoff Hoon warns against the unhealthy habit of briefing journalists, repeats his appeal to stay in

The Chief Whip Geoff Hoon has attacked "unhealthy" government press briefings about ministers, arguing: "They are not helping anyone - least of all the prime minister."

Asked how it felt to have been the subject of negative briefings at Labour's party conference in Manchester, Mr Hoon condemned the spin doctors.

“It never feels very comfortable,” he said. “I don't think that the briefing that's going on is helping anyone, least of all the prime minister, because he made a very good speech that was then having to compete with a story not about me, but about Ruth Kelly. I don't think [the briefing] helps the prime minister and I don't think it helps the party or the government for that to come out in that way.”

Speaking to the New Statesman in his office at 12 Downing Street - previously occupied by Tony Blair's former director of communications Alastair Campbell - Hoon spoke of his “uncomfortable” experience on Newsnight last week, in which he was effectively told by a reporter that he, along with Ruth Kelly, would lose his job.

“I don't know to what extent it was a stunt,” he said. “We'd been asked quite early in the day, would I do Newsnight, and I'd done a lot of interviews in the course of the – by then three days of party conference – and frankly the chief whip doesn't speak to party conference so I thought I could make myself useful by doing interviews. This had been arranged. I got the impression that the [David] Grossman bit was put in quite late, and obviously Jeremy Paxman knew what was going on – unfortunately I didn't it's fair to say.”

He added that such behaviour is not “healthy”.

“I think [briefing] is part of modern politics. I don't think it's particularly healthy. It starts with unattributed briefings, it's journalists making perhaps a lot out of not very much, and I just feel that it gives the impression that we're all constantly fighting amongst ourselves and that there's division and disunity, and that actually isn't true.”

Mr Hoon condemned fatalism in Labour and repeatedly said the Tories were "not ready for office" and said the Government must turn its fire on an ultimately unreconstructed Conservative party under the "gloss" of David Cameron's leadership.

The Cabinet minister also made a compelling appeal to stay in the government in advance of a reshuffle widely predicted for the end of this week. On his own position, he refused to be drawn on stories about his future and dismissed speculation as "the stuff of politics”. But he added: “I would like to stay in the government, I don't think that's a tremendously revolutionary thing to say, but it is a matter for him [Brown]. I've got a job in government because the prime minister's asked me to do one. If at some stage he decides that he wants someone else that's entirely a matter for him.”

In an uncharacteristically open interview, Mr Hoon also said that the current international crisis is "far more significant” than John Major's 1992 withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) that finally broke claims to economic competence and are widely thought to have played a key role in keeping the Conservatives out office for more than a decade.

The former secretary of state for defence added that Chancellor Alistair Darling's controversial claim that the economy is facing its most serious challenges for 60 years was in fact “modest”.

On the economic situation and its political implications, Mr Hoon issued a dramatic warning. The current financial situation is “actually far more significant” politically than the ERM crisis that rocked John Major's government and kept the Tories out of power for the past eleven years, he said.

Mr Hoon added that Mr Darling had in fact understated the extent of the economic crisis faced by America and the UK. Referring to Mr Darling's explosive Guardian interview before the Labour party conference, Mr Hoon said: “Alistair was ridiculed actually at the time, saying this was the biggest crisis that we faced in 60 years – but actually his observation is beginning to look quite modest.”

Asked why Gordon Brown's government was behind in the polls despite having not experienced an ERM style “killer blow”, Mr Hoon said: “I would have thought recent financial events on a global scale are actually far more significant than John Major's Government being forced out of the ERM.

“Although it may be that the domestic implications don't look quite as as significant as they did for John Major, I think the government is facing this global crisis and not yet through it: it's one of the reasons Gordon Brown is the right man to get us through it.”

He added: “I don't think we've quite got the full sense of how deeply deeply shattering this is to the American view of the world.”

Mr Hoon's comments come at a testing time for the prime minister as he contemplates a delicate reshuffle. Ed Balls, the schools minister, is said to be keen to be appointed Chancellor, but Alistair Darling has appealed to stay in the job amid claims by City experts that a change at this time could affect the markets.

Mr Hoon, who is seen to have successfully made the transition from “Blairite” to “Brownite” during the change in Number Ten, went on: “I'm here because the prime minister wants me to be here. If he wants me to do something else that's entirely up to him. You know I've been in government for a long time – at some stage that will happen. Obviously I hope it doesn't happen yet. But that's part of politics.”

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.