Abu Qatada could be released on bail early next month, it emerged last night as pressure grew on Theresa May over the disarray surrounding her attempts to deport the radical cleric from Britain.
The Home Secretary refused yesterday to disclose the legal advice she received about when to order the cleric's arrest and begin fresh moves to return him to Jordan to face terror charges.
In fractious Commons scenes, she denied claims that she had blundered by ordering Qatada's arrest before the three-month deadline set by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for him to appeal against his expulsion expired.
She insisted the Government would oppose any application by Qatada's lawyers for him to be released on bail while the legal wrangling continues.
The cleric was arrested on Tuesday morning and sent before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac) as the first step towards his removal to Jordan. Mr Justice Mitting gave permission for Qatada, right, to be held in jail. But he added that he would reconsider whether the cleric should be bailed "if it is obvious after two or three weeks have elapsed that deportation is not imminent". His comments make it almost certain that Qatada's lawyers will apply for bail early next month.
Any move to release him – even on conditions that amounted to virtual house arrest – would provoke a new crisis for Ms May, who faced challenges on all sides yesterday when she made an emergency statement to MPs.
Labour mocked her for the confusion over the deadline for Qatada's appeal. The Tory right backed her, but demanded the Government ignore the ECHR and press ahead with deporting Qatada, who has been described as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe.
Charles Walker, the MP for Broxbourne, urged her to put the "scumbag and his murderous mates" on a plane out of the country and send "a metaphorical two fingers to the ECHR".
David Cameron said yesterday: "This man... is a danger to our country and we want to remove him. However long it takes and however many difficulties there are, we will get him out." In the Commons, Ms May said she stood by the Home Office's interpretation of when Abu Qatada's three-month deadline ended – and accused the cleric's legal team of using delaying tactics.
She insisted the ECHR throw out the preacher's last-minute appeal shortly before midnight on Tuesday because the actual deadline was midnight on Monday. However, Ms May suffered a setback last night when a spokesman for the Council of Europe, which oversees the ECHR, said it believed Qatada's appeal may have been lodged "just in time".
The Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, said the "confusion" had played into Qatada's hands. "When the Home Secretary is accused of not knowing what day of the week it is, chaos and confusion have turned into farce. But this farce has serious consequences," she said.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said Ms May's staff should have known from two other EU cases that the three-month time limit begins the day after the original decision. He said he was concerned that a north London firm of legal aid solicitors had been able to "outwit" the Government's highly paid barristers. The Conservative MP Douglas Carswell called the handling of the case "Carry on Sir Humphrey in the Home Office".
What was said... and how the Home Secretary responded
"Did the Home Office get specific assurances from the European Court that the deadline was Monday night? If so, will it publish them?"
Theresa May chose not to answer directly.
"Was she told [about the ambiguity] and what did she do about it?"
I have made it clear that the deadline was on Monday 16 April. That is the view that we have put to the European Court.
"Did her officials ever put before her the decision whether to go forward on 17 April or 18 April?"
Your question is based on an incorrect premise.
"Will the Home Secretary now publish the advice?"
I have answered questions about the European Court, the treaty and the advice and guidance given by the European Court.
"Did the Home Secretary – at any time and from any quarter – receive advice to delay the re-arrest by 24 hours?"
I have made it clear that the Government's view is that the deadline finished on 16 April.
"Did she receive any advice on the ambiguity surrounding the 24 hours?"
Let me say to all MPs who are intending to repeat this question that I have already answered it....
"It is absolutely clear from her evasive answers that she did receive advice about the ambiguity of the 24 hours"
I have been clear, and am happy to repeat, that the deadline was Monday, 16 April.
"Will she [publish] all the advice that she received on this matter, including any advice about the ambiguity of the deadline?"
May did not answer directly.
"Why did she not wait for an extra 24 hours before making her announcement?"
I will repeat it again. I could not be clearer. The deadline was on Monday, 16 April.
"On Tuesday, was she aware there was a different opinion from hers about the deadline?"
The Government have been absolutely clear that the deadline was 16 April.
"She's admitted she knew of the BBC advice. Will she confirm whether she had advice from officials that there was doubt about the deadline?"
We've now learned the Opposition's view is that the best advice should come from the BBC.
"Did she receive any advice from any officials – albeit, perhaps, a minority opinion – that there was some ambiguity in respect of this date?"
You are wrong.
"She has not said... whether she was made aware that there could be uncertainty about [16 April] in the European Court. Was she made aware of that?"
The deadline was 16 April.
"Will the Home Secretary confirm... if she did receive advice from officials there was ambiguity about the deadline?"
I have answered that point on numerous occasions.