Late last night the call went out that the home secretary was finally going to produce her proposals for extending detention without trial. This surprised and irritated Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, who'd been expecting his report to appear first. A leaked draft report circulated last night in which the committee suggested that there was not yet evidence for an extension. Could the events be connected? Who knows.
What is clear is that the surprise announcement has destroyed an energetic behind-the-scenes operation to woo Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the civil liberties campaign group Liberty. This morning she accused ministers of abandoning attempts to build a consensus on the issue. She argued that there had been "a unique opportunity to end the arms race on terror laws".
Chakrabarti's role in this debate is crucial. It was she who pointed out a few months ago that the government's own civil contingency bill allowed detention without trial to be extended beyond 28 days for a further 30 if a state of emergency were declared. This was proof she, and later the Tories and Lib Dems, said that the powers were there if more than 28 days were ever needed. Ministers replied that to declare an emergency would be a gift to terrorists so they sought to achieve the same thing in new legislation without having to declare a state of emergency. That's where the talk of 58 days came (28 plus 30) which I reported a couple of weeks ago.
When that failed to woo the opposition, Jacqui Smith came up with the figure of 42 days. I've not yet heard the case for that figure as opposed to the previously mooted 90, 58 and 56 days. I suspect it's the whips’ best guess of what they might be low enough to minimise a Labour rebellion and get it through the Commons.
Another reason ministers may have rushed this out is - rather like with the speeded up announcements of cancer plans and sentencing reviews - to change the subject from party funding. The Guardian's front page splash today makes that tricky. It alleges that Labour Party officials helped draw up legal documents to allow David Abrahams to make secret donations exploiting what they regarded as a loophole in the law. So much for suggestions that only Peter Watt, Labour's general secretary who
resigned was forced out, was to blame.
UPDATE, 02:40PM: Whitehall's finest insist that there has been no speeding up of recent government announcements. They've caught some of those involved on the hop and they've surprised specialist journalists trying to prepare coverage of them but, apparently, this is not because they were speeded up. Curious.