PMQs review: Cameron wrongfoots Miliband on the banks

After being surprised by Cameron's commitment to banking reform, the Labour leader struggled to regain his poise.

Even before Ed Miliband got to his feet at today's PMQs, David Cameron had seized the advantage. Noting that Tristram Hunt and David Miliband were among those who would fall foul of Labour's new policy of banning unqualified teachers, he quipped: "another example of brotherly love". 

Things didn't improve much for Miliband after that. He challenged Cameron to say whether the government would use the banking bill to introduce new criminal penalties for bankers (anticipating an equivocal response) but was wrongfooted when Cameron simply replied: "we will be using that bill to take these important steps". After that, the Labour leader's subsequent (and pre-scripted) declaration that "if the government doesn't put down the amendments, we will" fell entirely flat. 

Miliband did have a smart statistic to hand, noting that bonuses had risen by 64 per cent in the last year, principally due to bankers deferring them in order to benefit from the 50p tax cut, but this only offered Cameron an opportunity to launch attack after attack on Labour for being at the wheel when Northern Rock issued 125% mortgages, when Fred Goodwin received his knighthood and when the boom turned to bust.

Bonuses, he pointed out, were 85 per cent lower now than in 2007-08, demanding that Labour finally apologise for its mismanagement. Miliband and Ed Balls have, of course, repeatedly admitted that Labour was wrong to regulate the banks so laxly but one can hardly blame Cameron for seeking to make them do so again.

Miliband declared at one point that he wasn't going to "take lectures from the guy who was the adviser on Black Wednesday" but his history lesson will resonate less with the public than Cameron's. That the Tories were calling for less, not more regulation at the time is, politically speaking, irrelevant. It is governments, not oppositions, that get the blame. 

Today's session was also notable for Cameron's refusal to deny that the government is considering increasing interest rates on student loans taken out in the last 15 years. After Vince Cable and Danny Alexander rejected the story as "false", this offers Labour a chance to go back on the attack.

Asked whether he had ever had any discussions with Lynton Crosby "about plain packaging of cigarettes or the minimum pricing of alcohol", Cameron replied: "I can tell you that Lynton Crosby has never lobbied me on anything", an answer likely to come under considerable scrutiny. But his pay-off was sharp; the only thing the pair discussed, he said, was "how we destroy the credibility of the Labour Party" but Crosby was not doing "as good a job as the party opposite". 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.