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Defender of democracy Jack Straw builds a wall of words

Jack Straw is the man who invented the Freedom of Information Act, and he loves it. Adores it. Can’t get enough of it. He came to the Commons yesterday to tell us that his Act was one of the most rigorous, the toughest, in the world. So far 78,000 requests had been granted. He gushed – there is no other word – about his own belief in our right to know everything.

I waited for the “but”. It took five pages. It seems that case number 78,001 posed a tiny problem. This was a request for the Iraq War Cabinet minutes. Both the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal had ruled that they should be released. But Mr Straw could not agree. He must block this. Otherwise Cabinet ministers would feel that they could never be honest again. This veto wasn’t about secrecy or the war: it was about saving democracy.

“Disgraceful!” shouted renegade MPs.

Mr Straw explained why this was like Magna Carta but more important. “The concomitant of collective responsibility is that debate is conducted confidentially.”

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Ah yes, the concomitant. What a barrister word. Mr Straw only uses them when he feels defensive: yesterday they surrounded him in crenellated walls. As the “buts” and “concomitants” built up, Labour MPs melted away. The Lib Dems were mob handed and there were dozens of Tories. Behind Mr Straw the acres of green leather spread out to the horizon. Soon there were only eight Labour MPs.

The Tory “attack” was hilarious. Dominic Grieve, the silkiest silk ever, tried to score a few “touché” type points, but then admitted that he thought Mr Straw was right. A smile flitted across Mr Straw’s face.

“I’m fascinated that the coalition that supported the Iraq war seems still to be in existence,” David Howarth, a Lib Dem, noted drily. Mr Straw and Mr Grieve glowed at each other concomitantly: only they understand the Magna Carta.

Next to Mr Straw, Andrew Mackinlay bounced up and down like an enraged rubber ball. Others on the Labour side were more eloquent – all but one opposed Mr Straw – but Mr Mackinlay’s attack came directly from the heart and, as he spoke, his feet beneath him did a distraught cha-cha-cha. It was “breathtaking” that Mr Straw, a major backer of the war, had taken this decision. “It really is appalling. It is a bad day for Parliament when you get the synthetic anger from the Opposition, cosying up, the Privy Council club closing down debate and discussion on things which must be revealed.”

Mr Mackinlay’s feet fumed. “I bear the scars of having trusted the Prime Minister on this matter and I will take to the grave the fact that I regret having listened to the porky pies and the stories. I will regret it to the day I die.” He thumped his heart. “I should never, ever have trusted them.”

Mr Straw got up to give a concomitant-type answer. As he opened his mouth, Mr Mackinlay shouted: “And I never will again!”

From The Times

February 25, 2009