LONDON (Reuters) - A last-minute legal decision that delayed the deportation of a terrorism suspect from Britain to Jordan sparked incredulity and outrage on Thursday from politicians and media angry at the coalition government's handling of the high profile affair.
"What a fiasco"! said the Daily Mail, berating interior minister Theresa May for attending a showbiz agent's birthday celebrations apparently unaware that Muslim cleric Abu Qatada was at the same time lodging an appeal with a European court.
May was partying hours after telling parliament the deadline for Qatada to appeal to the court had expired, opening the way for Britain to restart deportation proceedings against a man once described as Osama bin Laden's "right-hand man in Europe".
But the court accepted the request, taking ministers by surprise and derailing a bid to win positive headlines by promising to rid Britain of Qatada after a decade of trying.
"When the Home Secretary (May) is accused of not knowing what day of the week it is, then chaos and confusion has turned into farce," opposition Labour politician Yvette Cooper told parliament.
"On the Tuesday night's deadline while Abu Qatada was appealing to European court judges, the Home Secretary who thought the deadline was Monday night was partying with (TV reality show) X-Factor judges," Cooper added.
Qatada, convicted by Jordan in his absence of involvement in terrorist plots, has repeatedly thwarted government bids to expel him.
He won a European Court of Human Rights ruling in January barring his deporting to Jordan on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial there because evidence obtained by torture would be used against him.
Earlier on Tuesday May had been cheered in parliament for announcing that Britain had rearrested Qatada and would resume plans to deport him, saying a three-month deadline for him to appeal to the European court had expired the night before.
But the court calculated differently, saying the deadline was Tuesday midnight and that Qatada, who denies being a member of al Qaeda, had submitted his appeal request an hour before the time limit expired.
The government's apparent mistake had turned the affair into "Carry on Qatada", said the Independent newspaper, playing on the title of a series of classic British movie farces.
May insisted on Thursday government had correctly calculated the date of the deadline and would oppose the appeal on that basis, but accepted that there would now be further delay while a panel of European court judges decided whether to accept it.
With Britain and the court disagreeing over the key date, Labour asked why May had not delayed the arrest of Qatada by 24 hours to make sure there was no doubt over when the deadline expired.
The minister had allowed Qatada "another chance to make a fool of the government", Labour politician Chris Bryant told Sky News.
"The problem is if the Home Secretary gives him an inch, he'll take a mile. And I am afraid that in this instance it looks as if she gave him that inch," Bryant said.
The European court has barred Britain from proceeding with the deportation while it considers the appeal, raising the prospect that Qatada may further embarrass London by seeking release from detention at a high security jail.
TAX AND HOT PIES
May's difficulty over Qatada comes after a flurry of missteps by the Conservative-led coalition that suggest it has lost its political touch as it nears the second anniversary of coming to power.
The Conservatives' poll ratings have slid since an unpopular budget last month reinforced an image they were the party of the rich by cutting income tax for the wealthiest while raising taxes on pensioners and hot pies favoured by the poor.
Earlier this month the government was blamed by fuel retailers for causing panic-buying at petrol stations, after it warned drivers to stock up ahead of a possible tanker driver strike.
The picture of a blundering administration was compounded after a minister's advice to keep extra fuel in cans at garages in case of industrial action was swiftly withdrawn after fire fighters warned of the dangers of storing petrol at home.
"I do wonder whether this is the beginning of a sticky end for this coalition," said Sussex University politics professor Tim Bale.
Qatada was described as the "right-hand man in Europe" to former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by Spanish high court judge and human rights investigator Baltasar Garzon in 2004.
Britain says videotapes of Qatada's sermons were found in a German apartment used by three of the men who carried out al Qaeda's September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Lawyers and human rights advocates in Jordan say Qatada was convicted in his absence at a time when the powerful security forces were arresting hundreds of Islamists without regard for legal safeguards or evidence.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)