Ken Clarke 'regrets' cat spat language

Thursday 06 October 2011 17:11

Kenneth Clarke stopped short of apologising tonight as speculation over his future in the Cabinet continued to grow after he attacked Home Secretary Theresa May's use of "laughable and childlike" examples to criticise the Human Rights Act.

But the Justice Secretary admitted he does "rather regret the colourful language" he used to publicly question Mrs May's claim that an illegal immigrant escaped being deported because he had a pet cat.

The spat dominated much of the Conservative Party conference this week and showed no signs of abating tonight, despite Mr Clarke's insistence that he considered the issue "closed".

Dismissing as "old news" his own comments made during the conference in Manchester earlier this week, Mr Clarke said: "I consider this issue closed. The Prime Minister has made the position clear, and I fully support it.

"There is a problem with deporting foreign prisoners, which I have always agreed with Theresa needs to be addressed.

"The Government's commission on a Bill of Rights is under way."

But he added: "I do rather regret the colourful language I used at one point in my interview."

Mr Clarke claimed his Cabinet colleague had enraged judges and officials by turning the case into a "parody".

He told the Nottingham Post newspaper: "It's not only the judges that all get furious when the Home Secretary makes a parody of a court judgment, our commission who are helping us form our view on this are not going to be entertained by laughable, childlike examples being given.

"We have a policy and, in my old-fashioned way, when you serve in a government you express a collective policy of the government. You don't go round telling everyone your personal opinion is different."

Mr Clarke also acknowledged his next meeting with the Home Secretary was likely to be fractious.

"I expect I will have to wear body armour the next time I meet Theresa," he told the newspaper.

But Mrs May, who held a pink mug featuring a grey cat as she met youngsters in London this morning, remained firm, saying she did not regret referring to the cat in her speech.

She said: "I don't regret using the case of the cat. It was a decision made by an immigration judge.

"But it was one case among many, and I cited others in my speech, which show the importance of this Government doing something about the immigration rules to ensure that we're able to deport foreign criminals who we don't believe should be here."

She added: "I used an example where an immigration judge had, as part of his decision that somebody could not be deported, cited the fact that the individual had bought a cat with their partner as a sign of the quality of their family life.

"I cited other cases as well, underlining this was a very important issue, which is our ability to deport foreign criminals."

Mrs May made the comments as she visited the Safer London Foundation youth charity alongside Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith this morning, before details of Mr Clarke's latest attack emerged.

Both ministers later emerged from 10 Downing Street together after attending a meeting which a Number 10 spokesman insisted was a long-standing event, arranged to discuss trade and not the row between the pair.

They both smiled but declined to speak to waiting journalists who asked whether they had made up. They then left in different ministerial cars.

Other ministers, including Damian Green, were also seen leaving the meeting.

After the initial row erupted Number 10 quickly made clear that the Prime Minister backed Mrs May. Mr Cameron went on to use his conference speech to ram home that message by slapping down the Justice Secretary by joking he planned to give him a copy of Crime And Punishment, saying: "And I want you to read it, twice."

Mr Clarke's position in Cabinet has been precarious for some time. Earlier this year he was widely condemned for appearing to suggest some forms of rape were not serious and is viewed by many in the party as too soft on crime.

He is expected to be one of the losers in Mr Cameron's first reshuffle.

The row erupted when Mrs May announced plans to change rules which prevent the deportation of foreign offenders on human rights grounds, and cited the case of a Bolivian man here illegally who she said had escaped being sent back to his home country because he had a pet cat.

Mr Clarke said he did not believe that any such case existed and issued a challenge to his Cabinet colleague to accept his bet that she could not provide details of it.

The Judicial Office, which represents judges, later backed him up by issuing a statement confirming the cat, named Maya, had "nothing to do" with the 2009 decision to allow a Bolivian man to remain in the UK.

Civil rights group Liberty said it was "dangerously unbecoming" of Mrs May to use the case to bolster her argument.

But aides to the Home Secretary insisted that she was right and The Telegraph newspaper claimed today to have seen a copy of the 2008 ruling backing up her claims.

It reported that Judge James Devittie had concluded that separating the man from his pet could cause him "mental distress".


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