PMQs Sketch: Ed was right said Dave and Dave was right said Ed

The Alex effect that brought the two leaders together.

When your back is as firmly against the wall as Ed Miliband's you seek help anywhere you can find it and today it came in the rotund shape of one Alexander Eliot Anderson Salmond First Minister of Scotland. After experiencing the annus horibilis of his political life in one week, Ed turned up at the first Prime Ministers Questions of the New Year with all the obvious pleasure of a condemned man being asked to drive himself to the gallows.

Even as he set out he received the happy news that after 20 months presiding over the worst economic crisis since 1929 the latest opinion polls give the Government a 40% share, exactly the same as that of Labour. Buoyed up with that news, not to mention the fullsome advice from former friends and foe to beef up his performance, it was unsuprising that he looked a tad nervous not helped by the welcoming cheers of the refreshed Tory boot boys and girls happy to see him humiliated further.

His nerves had not been helped by his mugging by John Humphries on The Meet John Humphries Programme just 24 hours earlier and a less than fiery non-relaunch of Labour's programme for the future. It was against this background that his advisors had to come up with a cunning plan to persuade both party and country that Ed could have the occasional good days to balance out the bad.

The shelves in the cunning plan shop were clearly empty so Ed' s team turned to a tried and tested formula to keep him out of trouble -- bore your way through. Prime Minister Dave, whose own star has been on a par recently with that seen over Bethlehem, could not wait to get at the Labour leader and seemed non-plussed to be asked about rail fares from Bedford to London. The 500 MPs for whose constituents commuting is not a problem looked elsewhere as the two left the audience behind in an argument about who should take the most blame.

As a tactic it worked since Dave did not get a chance to open the book of Ed insults he had clearly got for Christmas and had brought with him to the Chamber. But the purpose of PMQs is two-fold, first to encourage the troops and discourage the opposition and secondly to get a sound-bite for the evening news.

Ed's record on the first has been somewhat patchy and early success against Dave has only served to bring out the years of bully-boy behaviour so attractive in Britain's ruling class and its Thatcher adherents. Even on the sound-bite front Dave has managed to pull off more wins than losses in recent weeks and Ed's boys knew another victory would only lead to even more smelly stuff being poured on their man.

With that in mind they decided to play the Armageddon card -- Scotland -- to guarantee success. Dave and Ed might hold each other in mutual contempt but that counts as nought for the the lack of fraternal feelings they have for the man who sailed to substantial victory in Scotland, SNP leader Alex Salmond. It is not enough that the Tory Party has, as one SNP member put it, "less MPs than Panda's in Edinburgh Zoo" or that Labour, once controllers of Scottish politics, are now a rump party, but it is the sheer perceived smugness of Alex that really upsets them. Not only do they know he has shafted them but he is happy to remind them at any opportunity and never more so than this week as Dave tried to remind him that the UK still has the U bit at the front.

With the timing and wording of whither Scotland now firmly on the agenda it is one of the few subjects guaranteeing unanimity between Ed and Dave. Ed was right said Dave and Dave was right said Ed as both pledged to work together against the Alex effect. Even the Commons seemed stunned into silence by this sudden outburst of unanimity.

It got Ed through this PMQs but the trouble with Armageddon is coming up with the sequel.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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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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