The Lib Dems must not accept the snoopers' charter

If the bill increases interference in our everyday lives, the party must walk away.

Seeing as it's only seven short days since the worst set of election results since, well, last year, it’s been a pretty good week for the Lib Dems, thanks to a Queen's speech that’s not so much yellow-tinged as basking in an all-encompassing golden hue.

And while Conservative commentators may not like it much, there is an apparent acceptance that for the next year at least, we will see a programme in government very much driven by a Lib Dem agenda.

Which is why so many Lib Dems are feeling quite chipper, already embracing the prospect of the 2015 general election campaign, now that the Daily Mail has written our campaign  poster for us. And as a Lib Dem activist who has called for a distinction to be drawn between the separate policies of the two parties in government from day one – I never wanted us to be seen as "Tory Lite" – I can be nothing but delighted about this.

But can I wave a warning flag?

Over all others, there is one very obviously Tory bill in The Queen's speech. It’s the Communications Capability Development Programme (CCPD) - or the snoopers' charter to you and me.

It’s only a draft bill rather than a full bill because of the almighty fuss Lib Dem activists made when this first came up. And I can’t say that I hate the proposals as they stand – because I’m told they haven’t even been re-written yet. But I’m also told that when we see them in draft form, we’ll most likely detest them.

Which is why, led by the inestimable Julian Huppert, we’ll fight them, amend them, twist them, change them and turn what’s likely to be RIPA Double Plus on first publication into RIPA lite by the time we’ve finished.

At which point we’ll need to make a decision.

This is exactly the process we went through with tuition fees and the NHS reforms. And we made bad proposals better. By which time we were to seen to own them, and thus got the blame for some pretty unpopular policies – that truth be told, we still didn’t like, but for some reason felt we had to support. If it wasn’t for the omnishambles Budget hitting Conservative support, the local election results this year would not have been noticeably different to last year, with NHS reforms playing the role of tuition fees and the Tories sailing blithely on.

So I’m not going through that again. This time we’ll fight, amend and twist the CCPD proposals. And when we’re done we must take a step back. And if the legislation rolls back interference in our everyday lives, then we’ll pass it with a glad heart. And if it doesn’t, regardless of how many hoops we’ve jumped through, we must walk away.

I don’t need a snoopers' charter hung round my neck.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Will Clegg fight the bill? Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Getty Images.
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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear