The Sketch: When are the facts not the facts? When Jack Straw explains them to us

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The Independent Online

When you take out the Government payroll (the whips, the ministers, the assistants), half the Labour party in parliament is against a war in Iraq. Jack Straw's debate on the Middle East had an elegant way of dealing with this embarrassment. He ignored it, them, us, Saddam and the title of the debate.

We'd had a glimpse of Iraq during the previous hour, in Foreign Office questions. Malcolm Savidge rose (consider his name, regard his posture and deduce his nature: he's savage like hamsters are savage) and asked an unusually savage question. He asked whether Defence Secretary Hoon's strategy would be implemented, as was laid out on television recently. Mr Hoon had suggested to Mr Dimbleby that the allies might launch a pre-emptive nuclear first strike on a rogue state. "Is this a moral or sane way to bring peace to the Middle East?"

Mr Straw indignantly said there'd been no suggestion of a nuclear strike. How he squares this with the suggestion of a nuclear strike, we can't say. You have to read Mr Straw carefully to guess what he means. He may really have been confirming that six ballistic missiles had already started the journey up Saddam's alimentary canal. That is how subtle a performer he is.

Menzies Campbell invited Mr Straw to dissociate himself from the policy of "regime change" favoured by some of our allies. It was contrary, Mr Campbell said, to the principles of the UN and international law.

Mr Straw said the Government was very careful to abide by international law. This was why regime change by illegal military action was necessary. International illegality is international legal. The prime minister had explained all that already, Mr Straw told us, urbanely.

Jeremy Corbyn intervened to observe that, as Israel was defying UN resolutions, would arms exports to them be stopped?

Gerald Kaufman developed a coda: Would the Government make clear to Israel that British military equipment should not be used for the suppression of Palestinians?

Mr Straw rose to the occasion. This had been made very clear to Israel. Indeed, our military attaché out there had observed armed personnel carriers built on British chassis being used in the occupied territories. He told us of the assurances we'd received that such exports would not be so used. And that the Government was no longer making decisions on export licenses on arms to Israel.

That was pretty good, you might think? It's a sort of undeclared sanctions policy. A bit devious, a bit bent, but if you want arms exports to Israel halted there it was. Just to be sure, I cleared it with the foreign office official sitting on near me.

"No!" he said, surprised. "No, it doesn't mean that."

Mr Straw was answering another intervention on the same subject. "There has to be certainty here", he went on. He talked about the EU's "consolidated criteria" so we all had to pay special attention. The EU criteria mean members must not export any weapons or equipment to be used for "internal repression or external aggression".

There it was. With all the certainty the Foreign Office is capable of. No arms exports to Israel.

"No, no, no!" the official whispered again, quite agitated. "I'll explain it in detail later."

"This two-stage solution means what it says," Mr Straw declared bravely. Of course, nothing means what it says.

Outside the chamber, the official said you could export anything you liked as long as you were able to assume that it mightn't be used for suppression or aggression. Yes, grouse shooting, for instance.

And those British chassis in the occupied territories? Had they actually been withdrawn? Er . . . No.

But then, why had we thought that? Hadn't the minister said the chassis had been withdrawn? Have we learnt nothing?

Simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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