What will Cameron and Clegg talk about tonight?

It’s worth revisiting Heath, Thorpe and 1974.

A letter-writer to the Times reminds us of how talks during the hung parliament of March 1974 between the then Tory leader (and incumbent PM), Ted Heath, and the then Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, broke down over Heath's inability to promise electoral reform:

Robert Armstrong, then Heath's private secretary, kept a detailed and highly confidential account of the negotiations between Heath and the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, which was made public last year under the Freedom of Information Act.

The decisive meeting took place in No 10 on Sunday, March 3, 1974. Armstrong recorded that Thorpe asked for a firm undertaking on electoral reform, which he had raised in previous discussions. Thorpe reminded Heath that he had "drawn attention to the fact that his party had polled nearly six million votes in the election but had won only 14 seats, and asked what were the government's views on the subject of electoral reform. In his telephone conversation earlier in the day Mr Thorpe had adumbrated a proposal under which there would be a Speaker's conference, with the Conservative and Liberal parties committed in advance to what their spokesmen would recommend to it, and pledge to implement the result within six months. The Prime Minister explained to Mr Thorpe that he and his colleagues could not honourably undertake to deliver anything like this."

Thorpe replied that without it "there was no possibility of the Liberal Party agreeing to participating in the government at this stage, though that prospect might change if and when a measure of electoral reform were passed . . . [and] if there were to be any prospect of an arrangement between the two parties [short of coalition], it would be necessary for the Prime Minister and his colleagues to give more indication than the Prime Minister had so far given that they recognised the injustice of the present system and were in favour of changing it to a system of representation which was fairer to the minority groups".

Since no such indication was forthcoming, the discussions collapsed.

You can read the full memo here.

The Speaker's conference idea didn't take off in 1974. Tony Blair kicked the Jenkins commission report into the long grass. So will David Cameron really be able to fob Nick Clegg off with an "all-party inquiry" on electoral reform? I hope not, but in this election, as we've seen, anything can happen.

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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