Tory concerns over leaders' TV debates grow

Brown has most to gain from television debates

When I suggested a couple of weeks ago that Gordon Brown had much to gain from televised debates between the party leaders, many disagreed. But over at ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie reflects some of the fears inside Tory circles:

My concern about these debates is very simple. The Conservatives have too much to lose when we are comfortably ahead in the opinion polls and therefore have to be very careful about the formats we are willing to accept. I hope . . . Team Cameron is insisting on just one or two debates.

The initial consensus was that the articulate and suave Cameron would emerge victorious from the debates, but there is a growing belief that Brown's forensic attention to detail could overwhelm the Tory leader. It is particularly significant that the Conservatives are opposed to policy-based debates on the economy, public services and foreign affairs.

The damage that policy scrutiny can do to the Tories was shown when gay support for the party fell by 17 per cent after its alliance with homophobic European parties received greater exposure.

Montgomerie also repeats his call for Nick Clegg to be excluded from "one of the debates" -- a demand which, particularly in the run-up to a possible hung parliament, broadcasters should reject. Chris Huhne is justified in complaining today about the persistent media bias against the Lib Dems:

Even where Labour and Conservative views are nearly identical -- such as on crime, Afghanistan or Iraq -- news organisations evidently feel they can eliminate the Liberal Democrat viewpoint in the interests of simple, adversarial debate. The idea that there might be more than two points of view in an argument is normal in other European democracies, but not here.

Reporters even refer to "both parties" or "both main parties" as if we were still in the Fifties-style two-party system, which is deeply insulting to voters who do not live in Labour-Conservative battlegrounds. Forty per cent of parliamentary seats have the Liberal Democrats in first or second place.

Leaders' debates should be designed to ameliorate this injustice, not reinforce it.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496