The Sketch: A cast-iron guarantee of nothing

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The Independent Online

A Tory MP wanted to know whether vicars could be arrested under Charles Clarke's new religious hate law. It's happened in Australia where a similar law is on the books. "Can we have a cast iron guarantee this won't happen in this country?" he asked. "Yes, you can," the Home Secretary replied.

What do you think that meant? Has the minister given a cast-iron guarantee? Has he refused one? Has he said anything at all? The answer to the first two question is "Yes and No". The answer to the third is: "No". And then again, "Yes". Mr Clarke has agreed to the proposition that cast-iron guarantees can be given, not that he is giving one.

You think I'm quibbling? Well, you're right. It's our only protection against disappointment. We mustn't rely on what we think we heard. The importance of textual analysis was made clear in the earlier statement from that wee man Mike O'Brien. He was announcing that restrictions on trial by jury were to be extended further into the justice system (not just immigration, not just control orders, but now for complex fraud).

Dominic Grieve sent down a number of well-paced, accurate deliveries, fast and sharp enough to make me wince and I wasn't even in the line of fire. It appears that during the last Commons debate on the subject, Charles Clarke undertook absolutely not to introduce this measure. He gave "a binding undertaking". So here it is! Mr Clarke has an explanation for this. I won't trouble you with it.

When Mike stood next to the principle he was about to abolish, his stature was revealed (he makes toy soldiers look like Goliath). He complained about conviction rates (they're at 80 per cent) but, when questioned, that conviction rates had nothing to do with the proposal. He said that long fraud cases were extremely complex and difficult with lots of cross-referenced information; but when questioned, he "would never suggest juries can't deal with complex cases". When invited to agree that long trials could damage small companies if an employee were seconded for six months he grieved for the "enormous economic injury" caused by such absence (has he heard about maternity leave?) The answer to long trials, incidentally, is to put jurors on to treble time after the third week.

Charles Clarke gave us to believe that his religious hate law would have prevented the Bradford riots of a few years ago. When this was challenged he said he'd never said that but then reaffirmed it in another form of words. As if to say: "What I said I didn't say but what I didn't say is actually the case." It doesn't matter what they say. Their text is merely a starting point, an inspiration for some inventive fugue to be improvised at a later date to justify ... anything at all.