Commons Confidential: When Tory chips are down

Plus: The misfiring Adam Afriyie.

I appreciate the rapidly dwindling Conservative Party – down to half the size when David Cameron was elected leader – is desperate to win new recruits but the latest drive to boost membership is a bit fishy. A snout rang with the tale of an Essex man who went along to a Clacton fish-andchip supper organised by the local MP, Douglas Carswell. The chap paid his £10, enjoyed his cod and then listened to the debate before going home unconvinced by the Tory case on Europe. So imagine his perturbation at a letter from Carswell’s office informing him that his tenner would be converted into membership of the constituency association unless he wrote back renouncing the party. The chap couldn’t be bothered to reply and – hey presto! – an unwanted Tory membership card duly popped through his letter box. It’s no surprise Carswell can boast he’s doubled membership in Clacton when it’s as cheap as chips.

Fun and games are often had behind the Speaker’s chair during Prime Minister’s Questions. If Michael Gove arrives too late to squeeze on to the front bench, the school pugilist stands out of John Bercow’s sight and, rocking back and forth on his heels, deliberately winds up Labour MPs with a stream of sneers. The strapping six-foot two Labour whip Tom Blenkinsop has the job of blocking Gove to minimise altercations, but the language can still be unparliamentary. My informant clutching an order paper swore he heard Dame Margaret Beckett, a former foreign secretary well versed in the art of diplomacy, call Gove a “ducking twit” or some such creature.

Cameron’s pet northerner, Eric Pickles, helps keep Ed Miliband’s children in shoes. The Labour leader’s significant other, the barrister Justine Thornton, fights planning cases on behalf of Big Eric’s Department for Communities. She’s assured friends the work is on the legal cab rank principle. Small worlds, politics and the law.

The misfiring Adam Afriyie is a Tory with a bank account to match his ambition. The multimillionaire wannabe leader is employing the ex-News of the World editor Phil Hall to give him PR advice. Another wealthy Tory, Frank “Zac” Goldsmith, hires the ex-Mailman Ian Monk to burnish his image. Both are thorns in Cameron’s side. A newsman on the payroll is the new must-have accessory for the Westminster elite.

Ivan Lewis, the shadow cabinet minister, is unhappy he’s been banished to Northern Ireland. Lewis, whom Damian McBride admitted smearing during the Big Gordie era, was overheard moaning: “The Brownites finally got me.”

The Tory Tyke Alec Shelbrooke, asked if his Jack Russell-poodle cross, Boris, was a randy pooch, answered bluntly: “No, I chopped his balls off.” A course of action that Mrs Johnson may wish she’d pursued.

Tory membership: cheap as chips. Montage: Dan Murrell.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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