Flat-footed Cameron is being outmanoeuvred by Miliband on MPs' pay

Just as Gordon Brown was outplayed by Cameron during the expenses scandal, so the PM risks suffering the same fate now.

After focusing for months on the "cost-of-living crisis" and the dramatic fall in real wages, Ed Miliband is more aware than most of how damaging the spectacle of MPs receiving an 11% pay rise (taking their annual salary to £74,000) could be. In an attempt to resolve the issue, ahead of the expected announcement by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) on Thursday, Miliband has now called for cross-party talks to be held.

A Labour spokesman said:

If the package of proposals being set out by Ipsa is as reported it cannot go ahead when people are going through the biggest cost-of-living crisis for a generation.

Therefore we are asking the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats for a cross-party approach that recognises the current economic circumstances where workers in the public and private sectors are going through such difficult times.

A Labour source told me that the hope was that a united front by the three main parties against the pay rise might persuade IPSA, which was awarded control over MPs' pay and conditions following the expenses scandal, to think again.

But Miliband's offer has been quickly rebuffed by Cameron, with a Downing Street spokesman commenting: "There is no need for cross-party talks on this issue because we have already made clear that there shouldn’t be pay rises at a time of public sector pay restraint." (The Mail also reports on irritation that "the Labour gambit came as Mr Cameron was boarding a plane to fly to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.") 

Asked yesterday whether Cameron would accept the rise (Miliband and Clegg have both unambiguously stated that they will not), No. 10 similarly said: "Any proposal that they make will be reviewed in mid-2015, so it doesn’t arise. The Prime Minister’s longstanding position is that the cost of politics should go down, not up. He doesn’t think that MPs’ pay should go up while public sector pay is being restrained."

This raises the possibility that the rise could take place after 2015 if the 1% cap on public sector pay increases (a real-terms cut) is lifted, although given the government's vow to maintain austerity until at least 2018-19 this seems unlikely. Rather, it appears that Cameron is simply determined to kick the issue into the post-election long grass. But given the inevitable outrage when IPSA recommends an 11% rise on Thursday, it is questionable how long he will be able to maintain this ambiguity. Just as Cameron outmanoeuvred a flat-flooted Gordon Brown during the expenses scandal, so he is now in danger of suffering the same fate at the hands of Miliband.

With Tory MPs more likely to believe that they should be paid more (according to a private poll carried out by YouGov), more likely to have given up lucrative careers elsewhere (although many, of course, maintain second jobs) and privately resentful of Cameron's personal wealth ("it's alright for him", is a common refrain), the PM's hand is notably weaker than Miliband's. Conservative MP Charles Walker spoke for a significant number yesterday when he said: "I've been working since I left university for 25 years and I have never turned a pay rise down and I don't intend to start turning any future pay rises down." 

But if Cameron wants to avoid handing Labour a golden opportunity to portray him as "out-of-touch", he will need to override this opposition and say what he has so far not: I will not accept the rise and I encourage others to do the same. 

Meanwhile, Labour MP John Mann has tabled an Early Day Motion calling for parliament to instruct IPSA to limit the increase to 1% in line with the rest of the public sector. Here's the full text: 

That this House notes the decision in the Spending Review announced to Parliament on 26 June 2013 to restrict public sector pay increases to 1 per cent; endorses the view that what is good enough for the workers is good enough for the politicians; and instructs the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to enforce public sector pay policy in its decisions over hon. Members' pay.

Given how many MPs privately believe that they should be paid more (69% according to that poll by YouGov, with an average salary of £86,250 recommended), it will be worth watching to see how many nevertheless sign Mann's motion. 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband in Westminster Hall. 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.