A third runway could be a U-turn too far for Cameron

The PM declared in 2010: "No ifs, no buts, no third runway".

It's the ferocity of Conservative MP Tim Yeo's attack on David Cameron, rather than the subject in question (a third runway at Heathrow) , that is most notable. "[T]he Prime Minister must ask himself whether he is man or mouse," the former environment minister writes, before damning Cameron with the faintest of praise "as the leader who made the Tories (nearly) electable again". He goes on to compare him unfavourably  to Harold Macmillan ("presiding over a dignified slide towards insignificance") and finishes with the requisite reference to Thatcher (a Tory leader who won elections).

The reason Yeo's intervention is damaging for Cameron is that the chair of the energy and climate change select committee, who cannot be dismissed as a rent-a-quote maverick, has vocalised the concerns held about his leadership across the Conservative backbenches. Tory MPs increasingly fear that Cameron, to borrow Thatcher's phrase, is not "one of us". The Prime Minister's heart, writes Yeo, is "an organ that still remains impenetrable to most Britons".

For Cameron's MPs, his willingness (or not) to abandon his opposition to a third runway at Heathrow has become a litmus test of whether he is a true Tory. But even for the PM, a man with a penchant for U-turns, this would surely be one policy reversal too many. Both the Conservative manifesto and the Coalition Agreement explicitly opposed a third runway and the presence of Liberal Democrats in Cameron's cabinet (a political reality many Tory MPs conveniently ignore) means that the PM would struggle to change course even if he wanted to. With Ed Miliband opposed to a third runway on principle (he almost resigned as Climate Change Secretary over Gordon Brown's support for the proposal), Cameron will also face no pressure from Labour to change course.

Yet Justine Greening's faltering performance on this morning's Today programme suggests that the Transport Secretary has little confidence in the PM's word. Repeatedly asked whether she could remain in the cabinet if the government backed a third runway, she initially ignored the question (amusingly, she declared: "Yes, I did do a campaign against a third runway. But really this is not a full length runway") before finally conceding: "It would be difficult for me to do that". At no point did she state that she would not be forced to resign because the policy is not changing. When she declared her interest ("my constituency is under the flightpath"), before swiftly adding, "so is Philip Hammond's, as a matter of fact, my predecessor", she sounded like a woman desperate to avoid being reshuffled.

But it's election leaflets such as the one above, issued by Greening, that mean the odds are still against such a flagrant breach of trust. For the aviation minded, "Boris island" or a new hub airport, as proposed by Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert, still looks a better bet. 

A British Airways aircraft taxis past other parked British Airways aircraft at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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