Theresa May was meant to appear before the home affairs select committee to talk about ‘the work of the home secretary’. The fact that her evidence was completely dominated by discussions of Abu Qatada’s deportation indicates how closely associated her reputation as a minister has come to be with the case.
Compared to her recent appearances in the House of Commons, her appearance before the committee was a calm, polite affair.
But below the urbane exterior of the hearing, the home secretary is still struggling to give answers about the deportation of Abu Qatada and the controversy over when the deadline for his appeal fell.
Six times committee chairman Keith Vaz asked her whether she had any written evidence from the court indicating that the deadline was the 16 April that she could produce, and six times she dodged the question, saying that she had “unambiguous advice” that the deadline expired at midnight on 16 April, meaning that Qatada’s appeal is out of time. It would seem that there are only verbal assurances she can point to.
Vaz was almost conciliatory in his tone, saying that he in no way held her personally responsible for the mix up over the date – he appeared to pin any potential blame on her officials. However, May said that she doesn’t “consider it a farce for a government minister to take unambiguous legal advice”.
May kept emphasising that despite what Vaz referred to as a ‘brouhaha’, the only arbiters of when the deadline expired was the panel of judges at the ECHR, whose deliberations “might take several months”. Even once the judges have ruled, things may not get easier for the home secretary – she revealed that there is no precedent for them to provide any reasons for their decision. If they choose to uphold Qatada’s appeal, we won’t know why.
In answer to Nicola Blackwood’s question as to whether the court had ever accepted an appeal out of time, the home secretary said that she thought they had, but could not explain what the case was or the reason for its late acceptance. The inference of the question was clear – there is a possibility that Qatada’s appeal will be upheld, delaying his deportation even further.
May refused to speculate as to whether Qatada would still be in the country by the end of the year. Based on the muddle of non-written assurances and long appeal times her evidence reveals, he very well may be. What is increasingly clear, though, is that this case is going to dominate May’s tenure as home secretary.