‘What a difference a day makes/Twenty-four little hours…’
It’s hard not to remember the opening words to the famous song, popularised by Dinah Washington, when watching Theresa May and Yvette Cooper square up in the Commons once again over Abu Qatada’s deportation.
After years of appeals, proceedings and assurances, it now all seems to come down to two differing interpretations of how long a period of three months is – May and the Home Office insist that the window for Qatada to lodge an appeal with the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) closed at midnight on Monday 16 April, whereas Qatada’s lawyers claim it was a day later on 17 April, meaning that Qatada’s rearrest was premature and new appeals could be brought.
When Theresa May came to the Commons on Tuesday to announce that Abu Qatada’s rearrest and that his deportation was to resume, she was confident, ebullient even. When challenged on the specific details by her shadow Yvette Cooper, she agreed that this move wasn’t going to result in Qatada boarding a plane within hours or days, but that she was “confident” that he would be on his way back to Jordan “soon”.
In her response to Yvette Cooper’s urgent question today, May had no such hint of triumph about her, although she remains forceful. Now, she said that she had “always been clear that the process of deporting Qatada was going to take many months”. Undoubtedly, she hasn’t concealed that possibility, but it didn’t appear quite so prominently in her earlier statement – his Qatada’s rearrest provided a sense of momentum that has now completely dissipated.
However, May seems absolutely confident that her department’s calculation of the appeal window, saying that she takes personal responsibility for the decision, going on to say that the fact that Qatada is employing this “delaying tactic” merely demonstrates how strong the government’s case for his deportation is.
Yvette Cooper and Dennis Skinner both tried valiantly to wrong-foot the home secretary – Cooper asked if she regretted “partying with X Factor judges on Monday night” now, while Skinner asked with unusual bluntness “does the home secretary know what day it is?”
Five judges of the ECHR will now consider Qatada’s application and rule on it in due course. Until that decision is made, Qatada’s deportation is presented by a section 39 injunction and all other appeals are halted. May said that the government will “resist vigorously any application he makes to be released on bail”.
The shadow home secretary declared that “deportation now less likely because of her [the home secretary’s] actions”. If it does emerge that May’s department was 24 hours out in their calculations, Cooper will perhaps have more success in landing that blow on the home secretary. When asked directly if she would resign over the matter, May dodged the question. Until we hear from Strasbourg about their chosen definition of the three-month appeal window, the 11-year delay continues to tick on.