How long can the Tory line on "cuts" hold?

The IMF, and the public, are sceptical

Here is the IMF's Dominique Strauss-Kahn, speaking at the CBI's annual conference on Monday, where he talked of the world's "debt of gratitude" to Gordon Brown and seemed sceptical of Tory plans to cut spending as soon as possible:

We recommend erring on the side of caution, as exiting [from the fiscal stimulus] too early is costlier than exiting too late.

And here is the Financial Times on a new poll guaging the public's attitude towards spending cuts:

That is the latest finding from the regular Ipsos/MORI public spending index which shows that the public remains split on the issue. Forty-three per cent agree spending needs to be cut but 44 per cent still disagree -- a net balance of 1 percentage point who disagree against a gap of 11 points in June.

The FT adds:

Just over half -- 53 per cent -- want spending maintained even if that means higher taxes.

Music to my ears!

The bad news is that the government is in no real position to capitalise on the IMF's verdict, or on public opinion, having fallen for what Seumas Milne calls the Tories' "brilliant political manoeuvre". Writing in the Guardian in September, Milne pointed out:

Twelve months on, the Conservatives have succeeded in turning the entire focus of political debate on its head. Instead of an argument about how to beat the slump triggered by the banking crash, all three main political parties are now competing over how to cut public spending and services. Cheered on by the bulk of the media, Cameron and Osborne have executed a startling sleight of hand, persuading a large section of the public that the real crisis facing the country isn't the havoc wreaked on jobs and living standards by the breakdown of the free-market model -- but the increase in government debt incurred to pay for it.

Yep, Brown and Darling have opted for a crazy and counterproductive plan to cut the deficit in half over the next four years as part of a pointless and perhaps dangerous "fiscal responsibility" bill. Own-goal, or what?

 

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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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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