Whither George Osborne?

Tory MP calls for the chancellor to be replaced.

Yesterday, it was the future of Conservative co-chairman Sayeeda Warsi that was being questioned by influential members of her own party. Today, it's the Chancellor George Osborne's turn to have his competence impugned by a colleague. In an article in the Mail on Sunday, Tory MP Brian Binley offers a fairly withering assessment of Osborne's record in government thus far. Binley writes:

The economy is in dire straits – even George Osborne must acknowledge that. It is now clear that the Chancellor will not fulfil his Election promise of eliminating the deficit by 2015. His much-trumpeted public spending cutbacks are illusory.
Binley goes on to make the kind of arguments for supply-side reforms that one hears alot both on the Tory backbenches and in the right-wing commentariat. He also says, baldly, that he doesn't think Osborne is up to the job of implementing such reforms.
I believe that George Osborne should be moved from the Treasury to the party chairmanship, to allow him to concentrate exclusively on winning the  next General Election. It would allow a Chancellor to  be appointed who has a deep command of economics, as well as political instincts that chime with the bulk of the party. Top of the list should be Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, who has the analytical strengths and broad commercial experience to become a fine Chancellor.
In an interview on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show this morning, Osborne had a chance to respond to criticisms like this. He gave a blustering, needled performance that compared unfavourably with the preternatural self-assurance and fluency of Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, who appeared on the programme before him. Asked about critics inside his own party, Osborne invited them to "get behind the government", and he swatted away a question about the wisdom of his continuing to combine occupancy of Number 11 Downing Street with a role as the Conservatives' chief election strategist. "I'm 110 per cent focused on the economy," he said.
 
What that focus will yield when Parliament returns, it appears, is legislation to reform the planning process which Osborne identified as one of the principal obstacles to the kinds of infrastructure projects that would provide a significant stimulus to the economy (which, incidentally, the Chancellor insists, all empirical evidence to the contrary, is "healing"). Marr wondered if that was part of the fabled "Plan B" that the Chancellor's critics have long been urging on him. Osborne demurred. "It's a hard road to recovery," he said. "And there is no alternative [to the government's deficit reduction strategy]."
 
As for a possible reshuffle, the Chancellor suggested that Marr ask David Cameron. One suspects we haven't heard the last of it.

 

On his way? George Osborne outside Number 11 Downing Street (Photograph: Getty Images)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture 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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