Why Clegg should kill the Communications Data Bill

No one gives the Lib Dems credit when they merely win concessions.

No one loves the Communications Data Bill currently making its way through parliament. Legislating to increase the state’s power of surveillance over citizens’ private communications is not the kind of thing that brings people into politics. Young idealists, fired with ambition to make a better society, with well-thumbed editions of Orwell on their shelves, do not anticipate forcing internet service providers to hoard copies of messages posted on social network sites so police and security services can sift through them for evidence of terrorist activity and other nefarious plots.

It is, however, just the kind of thing that politicians end up doing once they are in power. They have hair-raising conversations with security services and imagine what the consequences would be if a terrorist attack (or other nefarious plot) were perpetrated on their watch that might otherwise have been prevented with a data communication bill. Opponents – those whose Orwell editions are more recently thumbed – call it the “snoopers’ charter”.

One remarkable feature of this particular (and fairly predictable) augmentation of state power over the digital realm is that it belongs to a genre of illiberal measures that, under the last Labour government, united Lib Dems and many Tories in righteous indignation. One of the easiest areas of mutual understanding between Clegg and Cameron in coalition negotiations was their joint distaste for what liberals and liberal-minded Tories decry as just the kind of statist authoritarianism you might expect from a left-wing government. In fact it turns out to be just the kind of run-of-the-mill statism you might expect from any government. 

Some Tories continue to be squeamish about the bill. Lib Dems hate it with passion. Protecting civil liberties is something that Nick Clegg’s party sees as integral to its identity. Having sacrificed so much for the sake of coalition already, Lib Dems are terrified of appearing to sell out one of their few remaining conspicuous points of principle. The bill’s passage into law has already been delayed because of resistance by the junior party in the coalition. It is now the object of scrutiny by a special parliamentary committee. Clegg has told his party that the law won’t go ahead if Lib Dem concerns about privacy, proportionality and liberty aren’t addressed. Writing in the New Statesman earlier this year, Richard Reeves, Clegg’s former chief strategist, suggested the bill was better off dead.

The alternative is that it is mangled and rewritten at Lib Dem insistence. Clegg might then stand up and say his party had saved the nation from a terrible piece of legislation, helpfully amending it to neutralise the dangers. The only reason for taking that route would be to avoid allegations of wanton obstruction. In the past, Clegg has resisted vetoing Tory measures for fear that doing so would make coalition in general look like a recipe for deadlock. That was, in part, his motive for whipping his MPs behind NHS reforms (and, indeed, the famous acquiescence to raising tuition fees).

That approach has generally failed. No one gives the Lib Dems much credit for concessions they have extracted, while blame is heaped on them for facilitating a Conservative agenda. It was partly frustration at having marched so many times through the voting lobbies behind distasteful Tory measures that made Lib Dem MPs so determined to force their coalition partners to back House of Lords reform. It was also fury that Tory MPs refused to do so that made Clegg kill Conservative plans to redraw parliamentary constituency boundaries in their favour.

That was just the kind of raw obstruction that Clegg had previously hoped to avoid in coalition. It was also very popular in his party. One of the most problematic features of Clegg’s image in the country, according to focus groups, is the perception that he is pushed around by the Tories. (The irony there being that Tory backbenchers think he is far too powerful.) “Spineless” is the charge that the Lib Dem leader most needs to rebut if he is to recover any of his standing in public opinion. Above all, that requires periodically slapping down Conservative policy. The Communications Data Bill is a ripe target. Many Tories hate it anyway. It runs against much of what the Lib Dems purported to stand for before coalition. It doesn’t have much bearing on the economy. All things considered – aside from the rather crucial question of whether it would actually facilitate the fight against organised crime - it is hard to see why Clegg would do anything other than kill it.    

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

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

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