The Sketch: Grown-ups try to make sense of feline ambiguities

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The Independent Online

Having an under-developed vocabulary of praise, I write about Ming Campbell less than I'd like. But what a man. And what a wife, incidentally.

Having an under-developed vocabulary of praise, I write about Ming Campbell less than I'd like. But what a man. And what a wife, incidentally.

Any politician who can talk about "feline ambiguities" of his opponent deserves to lead the Liberal Democrats. When they vote for their next leader they should, like the Tories, go for the older candidate if only to give an appearance that the grown-ups are in charge.

"Thousands of Iraqis have died but we have denied them the dignity even of counting them," he said. The point was made by others. When David Chaytor asked about it, Adam Ingram gobbled some Highland gibberish and only emerged into the common language to reveal that the Government did its best to keep count; he said it "had recently been trawling through records to make sure they hadn't missed anything".

That surprised; then Geoff Hoon said something very similar. Are we to believe that the ministry has a secret list of civilian casualties? Why would we believe that? Because ministers said so?

Mr Hoon could easily maintain he was saying the opposite. It is his talent. His ambiguities are so ambiguous as to contain all possible meanings.

Nicholas Winterton asked him whether the Abu Ghraib prison would come under Iraqi control after the handover. That was "still under discussion, but in principle, yes", he said. That could be "yes", "no" or "partly", "later, or "not on your nellie".

Tam Dalyell asked for a guarantee that that there would be no skimping on equipment to protect our troops. Mr Hoon smiled comfortingly: "I can assure him that undertaking will be given," he said. That is different - very different, perhaps - from: "I guarantee it."

Listening to him, you might well have thought that authority will be transferred to Iraqis as well as full sovereignty. But when you read back his words you see: "it is important that we are able to hand over not just sovereignty but also authority". So, in Mr Hoon's triple-tongued world, if we are not able to hand over authority that justifies us not handing over sovereignty.

Will the interim government have the power to rescind existing decisions? Will it be able to nationalise utilities sold to Americans? And what would be the minister's attitude to a democratically elected parliament of religious maniacs? Mr Hoon's brilliant answers gave no indication of anything.

Mr Blair suffers from the same difficulties giving freedom to Iraq as he does liberating Britain's public services. We will give you freedom when you prove you will use it correctly, he seems to say. We will only let you into the water when you've shown us you can swim.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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