PMQs review: Miliband targets Cameron’s “broken promises”

The Labour leader’s new attack line of choice is a smart one.

Rarely have the Conservative benches cheered David Cameron as loudly as they did today. As the PM declared, ahead of tomorrow's local elections, "Don't let Labour do to your council what they did to the country," his MPs cried: "More! More!" It was further evidence that Cameron's stock, largely thanks to his robust interventions in the AV debate, has risen in recent weeks.

Today's bout saw Ed Miliband return to to the theme of "broken promises" – his new attack of line of choice. On police cuts, he highlighted Cameron's past pledge that any minister who proposed front-line reductions would be "sent straight back to their department to go away and think again".

Yet 2,100 officers with more than 30 years' experience are now being forced to retire. One of them, Martin Heard, was humiliatingly asked to return as an unpaid volunteer. As on previous occasions, Cameron simply passed the buck and said that police numbers would not fall if local forces made greater efficiency savings.

On tuition fees, Miliband accused the coalition of a trio of broken promises:

  1. The (Lib Dem) pledge that tuition fees would not rise.
  2. The pledge that universities would only charge £9,000 in "exceptional circumstances".
  3. The pledge that Office for Fair Access (OFFA) would cut excessive fees.

In response, Cameron pointed out that the last Labour government broke its pledge not to introduce top-up fees (true enough, but two wrongs . . .) and that degrees had always cost £9,000. The only difference, he said, was that the taxpayer, not the student, picked up the tab.

In the past, Cameron has simply argued that the deficit made higher fees unavoidable; this more ideological defence will have cheered his backbenchers. But the PM still won't drop the false claim that the OFFA has the power to limit fees. As Miliband pointed out, David Barrett, the assistant director of the OFFA, has admitted: "We are not a fee-pricing regulator, that is not our role."

Politically speaking, Miliband's decision to highlight the coalition's "broken promises" is a smart one. Voters might be divided on the cuts, but both the left and the right will nod in agreement when he accuses the coalition of misleading the public. The Labour leader also made an early bid to exploit the coalition's growing internal strife. The two parties, he said, had gone from "working together in the national interest" to "threatening to sue each other in their own interests".

As every psephologist knows, voters never warm to a divided government.

But the most notable thing about today's PMQs was how utterly miserable Nick Clegg looked. His nodding-dog routine has been replaced by a permanent frown. As Cameron reeled off a list of the coalition's achievements, Clegg remained impassive. But whether this is a tactical ruse or further evidence of genuine discontent remains to be seen.

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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