Has Clegg sent Norman Baker to stop the return of the Snooper's Charter?

It looks like the Deputy PM may have known that the security services were about to make another play to bring the Communications Data Bill back.

Nick Clegg has been on something of a drive to rehabilitate his civil libertarian credentials in recent months after the Secret Courts debacle (my word, definitely not his), nuking the Communications Data Bill, reversing the party’s position on Secret Courts, and securing numerous compromises over the Lobbying Bill.

But the latest step – putting Norman 'conspiracy theory' Baker into the Home Office seemed, for many non-Liberal Democrats, a step too far. "Did the Freemasons stage the moon landings? If so, new Home Office minister Norman Baker will find out…" and "Norman Baker is a green-ink crank – Theresa May will be furious with Cameron and Clegg for appointing him" are two of my favourite reactions from recent days.

Leaving aside the fact that driving Theresa May to distraction seems a perfectly acceptable reason for appointing him, Norman Baker, as many will testify, Norman Baker has been an effective and admired minister at Transport and he’ll do a brilliant job in the Home Office. But – and I’m going to be a touch 'conspiracy theorist' myself now – could there be another reason for Norman’s appointment?

There has been disquiet in recent weeks among the Lib Dem grassroots about the lack of vocal outrage in the parliamentary party about the Prism and Tempora revelations, which presumably went some way to 'helping' Nick make the decision to make a change at the Home Office. But could it also be that Nick knew that the security services were about to make another play to bring the Communications Data Bill (aka the Snooper's Charter) back to the table?

How else to interpret the words of the new head of MI5, Sir Andrew Parker, when he said last night?

"Retaining the capability to access such information is intrinsic to MI5's ability to protect the country. There are choices to be made including about how and whether communications data is retained. It is not, however, an option to disregard such shifts with an unspoken assumption that somehow security will anyway be sustained. It will not. We cannot work without tools."

It looks like the debate about the rights of the security services to retain data about UK citizens is going to start all over again. And if it is, I, for one, feel happier knowing I’ve got a green-ink using, card carrying conspiracy theorist sitting in the Home Office. And, I guess, so does Nick Clegg.

Good luck to you, Norman.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

New Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Norman Baker. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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