Email surveillance: the political fallout begins

Front pages condemn "snooper's charter", while both Tories and Lib Dems speak out against the bill.

"Snooper's charter will cost YOU £2bn," screams the Daily Mail's headline this morning. The Times goes with the slightly more sober "New law on snooping puts Tories in turmoil", while the Guardian's angle is "Lib Dems threaten rebellion over plans to extend email and phone call surveillance".

Yes, today was another morning of almost universally bad headlines for the coalition, this time over plans to expand the type of communications data stored by telephone and internet providers. Under the proposals, internet service providers would retain details of every phone call, email and website visit for at least a year.

While the government is adamant that this will not mean access to the content of messages, merely to data about them, there are question marks over where the line will be. Moreover, it is a significant ramping up of state power from a coalition led by two men who both promised to tackle excessive surveillance while in opposition.

According to the Guardian, senior Liberal Democrats are threatening to rebel, and are seeking clarification from Nick Clegg's office over whether the legislation would allow the intelligence services to access the content of communications without a warrant from the Home Secretary. "No expert I've ever spoken to can see how this could possibly be done without great expense and without allowing access to the actual message that was sent," said Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem MP for Cambridge.

Meanwhile, the Times (£) quotes several Conservatives taking issue with the plans. Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that David Cameron was being hypocritical, and warned of the possible international ramifications: "The government ought to remember why it favoured liberty in opposition. The powers it creates may in future be used by less benevolent administrations." David Davis said it was "an unnecessary extension of the ability of the State to snoop on ordinary people", while Dominic Raab warned of the risk of fraud.

The Home Secretary Theresa May is out defending the proposal this morning, writing in the Sun that it will help to tackle organised crime and terrorism ("Whole paedophile rings, criminal conspiracies and terrorist plots can then be smashed.").

But as the raft of negative front pages and comment pieces shows, this is another media battle that the coalition is losing. Yesterday, I blogged on reports that Tory MPs are frustrated that government policies are not being communicated properly to voters. Today, as ministers fail to articulate an effective response to the Information Commissioner's comment (contained in a previously restricted briefing note) that "the case for the retention of this data still needs to be made", that worry seems justified.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has defended proposals over extending email surveillance. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.