PMQs review: Miliband says "no" to an EU referendum but Cameron fails to notice

Rather than attacking the Labour leader for opposing a referendum, the Prime Minister claimed he had no position.

Ed Miliband knew that he would be challenged by David Cameron at today's PMQs to say whether he will match his pledge to hold an in/out referendum on the EU. And he also knew that laconically replying, "I ask the questions", wouldn't be good enough. So his answer, when it came, was a clear one: "My position is no! We don't want an in/out referendum." It was a response that will have been greeted with cheers across CCHQ. The Tories now have an on-the-record pledge from Miliband to deny the voters a say on the EU. 

Oddly, however, Cameron failed to take advantage of Miliband's error. Rather than attacking the Labour leader for opposing a referendum, he accused him of having no position at all. "His whole argument about uncertainty is undermined by his inability to say whether he supports a referendum or not", Cameron said, adding: "go away and get a policy". For today, at least, Miliband was spared. 

The Labour leader devoted most of his questions to asking Cameron whether he would still campaign for an "in" vote if his renegotiation strategy fails. The Prime Minister simply replied, "I support Britain's membership of a reformed EU", leaving open the question of whether he supported Britain's membership of an unreformed EU.

A better response came when he declared, "only the leader of the opposition would go into negotiations expecting to fail." As a holding answer, this is not a bad one. Since any renegotiation will not begin until after 2015, Cameron will not have to elaborate any further. He turned the debate to his advantage by arguing that Miliband was unable to answer "the most basic question of all": do you want a referendum?" When the Labour leader replied "no", the Prime Minister apparently failed to notice. His party, however, did. If Miliband continues to oppose a referendum, they can accuse him of denying the British people a say over an institution that has changed dramatically in the 38 years since the first and only EU referendum. If he later comes out in favour of one, they can accuse him of performing a humiliating U-turn. The Tories have Miliband exactly where they want him. 

David Cameron delivers his speech on the UK's relationship with the EU at Bloomberg's headquarters in London. 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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