Theresa May on Abu Qatada, 7 February
What is the collective noun to describe an assembly of home secretaries, past and present? A rage? A choler? A fury? The better term might be an impotence.
Anyway a reasonable smattering of holders of this office - a demi-impotence perhaps - was gathered in the House to listen to the current incumbent, Total Politics covergirl Theresa May, announce just how cross she was that the courts once again had sided with Abu Qatada, the terrorist pin-up. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg had said he cannot be deported and one of our own dear judges had let him out on bail. It was Mrs May's misfortune that her emergency question fell to be answered at the end of questions to the Attorney-General, thus ensuring that the front-bench around her was populated by a rich selection of lawyers. The Home Secretary was thus speaking from deep within enemy territory.
Mrs May explained that successive governments had been wrestling with Qatada since 2001 in a so far fruitless attempt to send him back to Jordan, his native land, and where it might be hoped he will be given a fair trial and then thrown into prison. Two of those who had been doing the heavy-wrestling, David Blunkett and Jack Straw, Labour home secs both, were there to question their successor. It was clear that they had not arrived with very much sympathy for Mrs May in her plight.
Mr Blunkett, like several other Labour members, was critical of a Government policy called TPIMS, and one could see his point. What exactly was this Tea-Pimms? Is it what British ambassadors now do in the age of austerity, when there is no longer enough budget to throw both afternoon tea and cocktail parties? Invite favoured foreigners round at half-past five for a spot of Tea-Pimms, cherry scone provided, bring your own stick?
The reality, listening to the Labour side at least, seems scarcely less congenial. TPIMS turn out to be what we used to call control orders, except that they underwent a bit of relabelling when the coalition came in - detoxifying the brand no doubt - and a whole lot of softening as well, or such is the allegation. "The TPIM restrictions are not enough" declared Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary.
Mr Blunkett's concern seemed to be that once Qatada reaches the end of his three months bail, and thereby qualifies for a TPIM, he will be able to use the 12 hours a day it allows him on the street to disrupt the Olympics. This fear would seem to rest upon the unlikely assumption that he will have got any tickets, a process considerably more gruelling than persuading a gullible court in Strasbourg that fiends are waiting to torture you back at home. Mrs May for her part pointed out that Qatada's bail conditions - which include being banged up at home for 22 hours a day and no internet - are tougher even than the fearsome Labour control orders. This argument destroyed the opposition's case, though that, of course, was no barrier to them making it.
From her own side, the Home Secretary faced the predictable calls from various disgusted Tories that she should either ignore the European court's ruling, or walk away from it entirely, or preferably both. Mrs May would, she said, look at any legal option, thus deliberately missing the point that she was being invited to explore illegal options instead. Perhaps the clue to Mrs May's preferred course of action lay in her jewellery: an odd piece of apparently masonic regalia at the end of a chain so long that it nestled just above her waistline. The Government, she said, was considering referring the matter to something called the Grand Chamber. The solution to this it sounds may well lie within the pages of The Da Vinci Code.
Nevertheless, there was an emerging consensus that Mrs May should, as Wellingborough's Peter Bone put it, turn herself into a national hero by putting Qatada on the first plane out and send him home regardless. The Tories were still split however. Moderates felt the plane should be allowed to land while the majority was with having it circle 20,000 feet above Amman while they pushed the bugger out.
It was left to Mark Reckless, the member for Rochester and Strood, to make the obvious remark that the problem was all the fault of the Liberal Democrats. They were standing in the way of Conservative desires to institute a British Bill of Rights in place of all this European rubbish. By this time, the Government's lawyers had departed to leave Mrs May at it. There was, however, still a Liberal Democrat on the front bench: David Heath, the Deputy Leader of the House and member for Somerton and Frome.
Squat and seriously bearded, Mr Heath might, in a bad light, pass for the infamous Abu Qatada himself. This was surely the moment for Mrs May to live up to the robust billing she'd been awarded by her backbenchers and turn upon the Mad Mullah of the Mendips. She bottled it. Progress towards achieving a homegrown Bill of Rights was, the Home Secretary patiently explained, being overseen by a group led by Nick Clegg and Kenneth Clarke. Somehow, I don't think that answer was going to leave very many Tories quenched.
Follow Richard Marsh on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HampsteadOwl