What a vain, petulant and hysterical show

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The Independent Online

Questioning, Samuel Johnson tells us, is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen. In the last week I have done little except listen to politicians, most of them lawyers, asking questions, and sometimes receiving answers, usually from other lawyers, and very occasionally from Mr Charles Clarke, who, as he keeps telling us in an aggrieved tone, is not one of them himself. As a result of these experiences, I have two questions of my own, which, I find, others outside Westminster are asking also.

Questioning, Samuel Johnson tells us, is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen. In the last week I have done little except listen to politicians, most of them lawyers, asking questions, and sometimes receiving answers, usually from other lawyers, and very occasionally from Mr Charles Clarke, who, as he keeps telling us in an aggrieved tone, is not one of them himself. As a result of these experiences, I have two questions of my own, which, I find, others outside Westminster are asking also.

First: why are these supposed terrorists being kept in this country at all, whether in prison or under restraining orders of one sort or another? Why can they not be sent back to their countries of origin? The majority of the terrorists of September 2001 hailed from Saudi Arabia. The US government seemed reluctant to acknowledge that preponderance, presumably because it was anxious to keep in with the Saudi royal family. We need feel no such tenderness towards the various North African states from which our own alleged terrorists derive.

One other comes from Palestine. Another one understandably lost his reason and was confined to a lunatic asylum. It would be inhumane to repatriate him, though Kenneth Baker, when he was Home Secretary, was once responsible for trying to smuggle some unfortunate Nigerian home in a packing case. There may be those who should be allowed to stay in this country. But generally they seem suitable candidates for Enoch Powell's policy of repatriation.

Second: why were the Belmarsh prisoners released on bail at the end of last week, when the Order confining them to the South-London jail did not expire till midnight tonight? Moreover, Mr Clarke had taken powers (which, as I write, he still possesses) to renew the Order if necessary. Most people would say that if the suspects could have been released last week, they could equally well have been freed last month, or at the end of last year, when the Law Lords decided that their incarceration was in breach of our human-rights obligations.

This did not happen, presumably because it would have made the Government look weak. It would have deprived the appalling Ms Hazel Blears - not to mention our more seriously worrying Prime Minister - of the opportunity for making speeches about how ministers rested neither by night nor by day in their zeal to protect the citizens of these islands. The only explanation for the release of the prisoners which makes sense is that it was a political wheeze, undertaken to try to influence the more obdurate element in the House of Lords. By this stage of the proceedings the Commons were providing the Government with majorities of over a hundred, after an initial scare when the ministry could have been defeated if Mr Charles Kennedy and a few more Liberal Democrats had bothered to turn up.

The old Peers v People cries could be heard once again last week, not least from Mr Tony Blair himself. The truth is that the Lords were perfectly entitled to behave as they did. We heard a lot of lawyers' language in the course of the week. One useful word which we did not, I think, hear was "estopped". What it means, roughly, is that if you make a promise or adopt a course of conduct on which someone else relies, you cannot go back on it afterwards simply because it suits your convenience.

On the House of Lords, Mr Blair is, I am afraid, estopped. It is his own creation, fashioned in nearly eight years of government. The hereditary element has been largely eliminated. It contains no elected members mainly because Mr Blair was against them. If the chamber's composition has been endlessly discussed, as it has, its powers have been left in the air. This is not the fault of their lordships but of the Government. It cannot at this stage turn round and object to the powers which the Lords possess when ministers have had a long time to attend to the matter and have chosen to do nothing.

There is another area where, I suggest, the rules of estoppel extend to the Prime Minister. It is where "security" is concerned, often varied to "national security" to make it sound more solemn. All prime ministers are impressed by the intelligence services: the more so if they have no military experience themselves, which all our prime ministers have lacked for over 25 years. Mr Blair seems to be even more spy-struck than his immediate predecessors.

However, I do not believe that he was led into the Iraq war by faulty intelligence. I think he would have gone into it anyway and that the dud intelligence, duly flammed up (to use the old journalist's word for "exaggerated") by his minions, acted as convenient reinforcement. Mr Andrew Gilligan has turned out to be right, as I said he was all along, irrespective of when precisely he made his notes.

Today, likewise, are we seriously expected to believe that, as Mr Blair asserts, the intelligence services consider that a Terrorism Bill which lapsed after a year would somehow send a wrong "message" to the terrorists, whereas a Bill which was merely reviewed would strike genuine alarm into their hot breasts? Merely to ask the question is (as Powell would have said) to demonstrate the absurdity of the proposition that is being advanced. Indeed, it was so demonstrated in a bravura intervention by the Liberal Democrat Mr David Heath in the Commons on Thursday evening.

Oddly enough - or perhaps not so oddly - Mr Clarke has looked more prime ministerial than Mr Blair, who is really in a branch of show business. Perhaps it is what we now want our prime ministers to be. It is certainly the way in which the broadcasting authorities choose to deal with Mr Blair, thereby doing some violence to the various Charters, Acts and understandings whereby they operate. There was no reason for television's political editors, so called - for they are in fact chief political correspondents - to troop in to the Prime Minister's presence late on Wednesday evening to receive a tendentious lecture which was no more than a party political broadcast. They should have turned him down flat; failing this, both Mr Michael Howard and Mr Kennedy should have been offered a right of reply.

The broadcast may not have been so much party political as prime ministerial. Yet it would have been much better for all concerned if the Bill had been left to the Home Office and the No 10 machine had observed a period of inactivity. As things have turned out, Mr Clarke has appeared reasonable; Mr Blair vain, petulant and even, at times, hysterical. Various Mr Worldly Wisemen tell me that Mr Blair knows what he is doing. I am not so sure about that.

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