The Sketch: He tried all his tricks to persuade them to back him. But still he lost

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The Independent Online

In personal weight and general forcefulness he's never been better. That makes it all the worse for him. His performance at PMQs went from A to the end of the alphabet and halfway back through a book of algebra - and still he lost heavily.

What versatility he showed us in PMQs. Noble, honourable, hurt, shocked, indignant, relying on expert advice from the security services ... Hang on, you think, we've been here before. The prime ministerial magic made us believe in Saddam's phantoms.

This time, the Government arguments had a combine harvester driven through them. No one held for 14 days and released has been subsequently charged (David Winnick). The police scope for error is enormous - they told us the man they shot in London was a terrorist (Kate Hoey). And 90 per cent of the time that terror suspects are in prison they aren't being questioned (Clare Short).

Tony Blair and Labour consistently voted against terror legislation in the 1980s and 1990s (Ming Campbell). The 90 days was originally asked for on the basis of two unrelated cases and a police press release (John Denham).

One of the ex-servicemen from the Tories, Ben Wallace, made what has hitherto been an uncontroversial idea in Britain: "Gathering evidence before arresting someone was thought to be the best way of countering terrorism." If you start from that idea it's very hard to approve of proposals to lock people up for three months without charge.

That's where the Government argument was vilest: you could deduce that from the fact it produced a reaction both fierce and foul from ministers. Consider: It is reasonable to argue that giving Muslims the equivalent of a six-month jail sentence without charge could cause more political violence than less. And yet, this proposition caused Mr Blair to insinuate that Mr Howard was pitching for the National Front vote. Charles Clarke reacted to the same point put by Mark Fisher: "Totally, absolutely wrong!" he furiously and definitively said (he can't know that).

But Mr Clarke's angriest and most passionate point was an example of where 90 days might have got a conviction. The ricin suspect they released could have been charged if they'd had enough time, he bellowed. There it is. The blood of the innocents will be on the head of all opposition!

David Winnick has very little artifice about him. But (or so), his strange, lunging speech was capable of touching the heart. Backbencher of the year, and maybe next year too.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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