Cameron's EU referendum may never happen

It is odd to speak of an EU referendum as inevitable when few believe the Conservatives will win a majority at the next election.

Yet again this morning, David Cameron was interviewed about a speech on the EU he still hasn't given. Asked on the Today programme whether the over-hyped address had been completed, Cameron said it was "finished and ready to go" (subsequently amending this to "largely finished").

Once again, he said that he would seek to reach a "new settlement" with the EU before seeking the "consent" of the British people for the changes, a clear promise of a referendum. In his speech, which is now due to be delivered on 23 January (having been pushed back from 22 January in order to avoid clashing with celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty between France and Germany), Cameron will say that after the next election, a Conservative government would seek to repatriate significant powers from the EU before offering the voters a choice between the new terms and withdrawal.

As such, a referendum is now viewed by most as inevitable. Yet this pledge is dependent on an outcome that increasingly few believe is likely: a Conservative majority at the next election. A reformation of the coalition would likely scupper any plans Cameron has to bring back major powers from Brussels. In addition, it is unclear how Cameron will respond if he proves unable to secure the changes he wishes to see. This morning, he simply told John Humphrys: "I'm confident we will get the changes that we want, we'll have a new settlement and then we'll put that to the British people." Given the obstacles to a referendum, it is surprising how many now speak as if it is a certainty.

Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats will immediately match Cameron's pledge to hold an EU referendum, both arguing that it makes no sense to discuss a public vote until the eurozone crisis has been resolved. However, it is also true that they are unlikely to allow Cameron to go into the 2015 election as the only party leader willing to offer the public a say on Europe. The Lib Dems have previously supported an in/out referendum, while senior Labour figures, including Jon Cruddas and Jim Murphy, both argue that a vote should be held at some point in the future. In all probability, then, an EU referendum is coming. But no one should assume it will be Cameron who holds it.

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the EU headquarters on December 14, 2012 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

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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