Cameron delays his privatisation plan again

Plans to open up all public services to private providers are put on hold.

Tony Blair famously declared: "I can only go one way, I've not got a reverse gear". But as the coalition's first year taught us, David Cameron certainly has. The backlash over the government's NHS reforms means that Cameron's entire public service reform agenda is in doubt. His radical pledge to open up almost all of the public sector - bar national defence and the judiciary - to private and voluntary providers may never be implemented.

I noted earlier this month that the government's white paper on open services, which was due to published in the spring, had been delayed in the face of opposition from the Lib Dems and scepticism from the Treasury. At the time we were assured that the white paper would finally be published in mid-July. But Francis Maude, the minister responsible for the reforms, tells today's Times (£) that the paper now won't appear until the autumn.

It's not hard to see why Cameron has retreated again. The pledge to open up the NHS to "any willing provider" proved toxic for Andrew Lansley's reforms. The pledge to do the same for the entire public sector could inflict yet more damage on the Tory brand. As my colleague Rafael Behr observed in his column recently, "One fear at No 10 is that the public hears the words "Conservative reform" and understands "mass privatisation".

The government's inertia reflects a growing division between George Osborne and Steve Hilton on the pace of reform. Hilton, Cameron's chief strategist, is determined to push ahead with the reforms to prove that the government is in control of the policy agenda ("Everything must have changed by 2015," he once remarked. "Everything"). But Osborne, who is focused on securing a Tory majority in 2015, is more cautious and is desperate to avoid another politically damaging row. In an illuminating piece on the Hilton-Osborne relationship, the Times's Sam Coates notes that senior Tories suggest there is now a "50-50 chance" of an increasingly disillusioned Hilton leaving Downing Street within the next six months.

It's unlikely that the reforms will be abandoned altogether but rather, like Lansley's NHS plans, that they will survive in a diluted form. The Lib Dems, to their credit, are determined to avoid anything that resembles privatisation. The near-collapse of Southern Cross, the company responsible for 750 care homes, was a timely reminder of the limits of the market. But Tory MPs are only likely to see this as further evidence of Cameron's diminished ambition.

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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