As Admiral the Lord West swims away from Downing Street with a large naval dirk sticking out between his shoulder blades, government policy on the issue of how long it wants to be able to hold suspects, is, as the retired sailor now appreciates, all at sea. And he knows politics is no place for gentlemen.

Admiral the Lord West told the nation this morning that he shared the conviction of many that the case for detaining people beyond 28 days had not been anything like made out, especially after Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s embarrassing performance in the Queen’s Speech debate in which this second-rate woman was unable to say what her preference was in terms of days. He was not yet “fully convinced’ of the need to raise the 28-day limit.

One imagines that his mobile phone started to glow white hot shortly thereafter for he was immediately summoned to the Bunker and reprogrammed. On emerging from Ten Downing Street he sidled up the road so as not to let us see the knife in his back, whilst announcing the most rapid Damascene conversion for years:

“My feeling is, yes, we need more than 28 days. I personally absolutely believe that within the next two to three years, we will require more than that for one of these complex plots. So I am convinced that’s the case, but it is very difficult because there is a civil liberties issue.”

The last sentence suggests that his conversion was less than whole-hearted.

When he was first appointed I made the point that appointments of non-politicians tended not to be happy for the appointee:

The Huntsman fears that a sound military man may well find the world of party politics not to his taste at all and that the very high standards of conduct to which he used are sadly lacking in a party which does not exactly sympathise with the armed forces (one thinks of the obnoxious Mandelson’s observations about “chinless wonders” as being pretty well representative of Labour’s view of the Military). One wishes him well but proffers the caution: “mind your backs!”.

He may have thought that his time as Chief of Defence Intelligence had prepared him for being a full-time politician. It does not, as he is now discovering. How long a decent man will be prepared to put up with the sort of behaviour he is now realising is the norm in Labour ranks remains to be seen.

Meanwhile the argument on criminal procedure in terror cases rolls on. As well as detaining people for 28 days (or whatever the figure is at this minute), Labour wants to be able to question people after charge. In principle I have never been able to see why this was objectionable if new evidence comes to light after charge which will be led at trial: after all a defendant is entitled, if he so wishes and is so advised, to offer an explanation of that evidence.

If, however, the process is to be open-ended, then the danger is that repeated and persistent questioning, especially as a trial approaches, simply becomes oppressive and may amount to torture. We shall have to see the detail of this proposal to evaluate what safeguards are built into it. As this Government’s tendency is towards oppression, those safeguards must be robust.

The danger remains that, in seeking to protect our penchant for civil liberties, those very liberties are destroyed forever.