Robert “Budget Is Regressive” Chote heads for the OBR

It could all end in tears for Cameron and Osborne.

Is the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) "independent"? It's a question my colleague David Blanchflower has been asking for several weeks now in his economics columns in the NS.

Today's appointment of Robert Chote of the Institute for Fiscal Studies as the new head of the OBR -- replacing the outgoing Sir Alan Budd -- will go a long way towards reassuring the likes of Blanchflower. Chote has a reputation as a freethinker and is considered impartial and credible.

He has said that if his appointment is confirmed (by Andrew Tyrie's Treasury select committee), the OBR will present its judgements "without fear or favour".

Chote joins his wife, Sharon White, who is a policy director at the Department for International Development, inside Cameron's big tent -- along with the likes of Will Hutton, Frank Field, Alan Milburn and, of course, the Liberal Democrats.

But here's a question: will Chote continue to describe June's emergency Budget as "regressive" after he takes up the reins at the OBR? It might be a tad awkward for Cameron, Osborne, Clegg et al if he does.

In fact, I suspect that Dave's attempts to erect a "big tent" might backfire on him in the same way as Gordon Brown's "government of all the talents", or "goats", did.

Meanwhile, over on the Telegraph blog, James Kirkup imagines the response of our former PM to news of this particular coalition appointment:

Mr Chote will now become a senior member of the wider Treasury establishment, only a few years after a certain Gordon Brown vacated HMT. It's an open secret that the former PM was not a fan of Mr Chote. The oft-repeated story that Mr Brown engineered Mr Chote's removal as economics editor of the FT in the late 1990s is overstated. But it's certainly the case that Mr Brown frequently referred to Mr Chote using robust language, calling him things that cannot be repeated on a family blog . . . today, we can only imagine Mr Brown's feelings.

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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