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Commons confidential: Meryl Streep and the self-publicist peril

Unluckily for MPs yearning for the limelight, Meryl Streep will be filming her role as Emmeline Pankhurst in Westminster during the Easter recess.

Voters can be awkward people, as Nick Clegg discovered during a stunt with Liberal Democrat MPs. The idea was to hold up a banner in Victoria Tower Gardens, the patch of green along the River Thames at the Lords end of parliament, declaring the Con-Dem coalition’s minor party to be marvellous or some such vacuous nonsense. TV crews assembled and commenced filming the Yellow Peril propaganda palaver – so far, so mundane. Until a demonstrator joined in. “Nick Clegg,” yelled the protester, “you know BEEP BEEP is a paedophile.” BEEP BEEP is the name of a once-prominent politician who may be recognisable to some NS readers. I understand that serious allegations have been made to the police about sexual abuse of boys and young men. Broadcasters, perhaps Clegg and certainly BEEP BEEP will be relieved that the event wasn’t transmitted live.

Colonel “Bonking” Bob Stewart is on manoeuvres. The commander of British forces in Bosnia-turned-Tory MP is the only Conservative on the Commons defence committee lobbying Labour MPs hard to succeed James Arbuthnot as chairman. I’m told that others – Julian Brazier, Adam Holloway and James Gray – are concentrating their drinks on fellow Tories. The position is decided by a vote of the entire House. A Tory MP by the name of Bercow successfully went behind enemy lines to be elected Speaker.

MPs are dividing into two camps after an email informed them that the veteran documentary-maker Michael Cockerell is preparing to make Parliament: the Movie. The Invisibles want nothing to do with the Beeb four-parter while the self-publicists clamour to be on the small screen. The authorities came up with a solution to prevent the self-publicists hassling Meryl Streep when she is filmed playing the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst: the Hollywood shoot is scheduled for the Easter recess, when they will be on holiday.

Should Streep be looking for an unusual memento, she could always buy a £16.95 model of the Houses of Parliament or a £19.95 House of Commons chamber. Both are assembled out of wooden blocks and sold in a gift shop. I counted a dozen nondescript MPs in the chamber box. That many shows it must be based on a busy day.

Back in TV land, a producer muttered disapprovingly that Diane Abbott was observed filling a paper bag with the pastries put out for guests.

The Egyptian rapper and star of Arabs Got Talent Mayam Mahmoud flew to Britain to collect the Freedom of Expression arts award from Index on Censorship. The teenager uses hip-hop to fight sexual harassment and stand up for women’s rights in Egypt but nothing prepared her for London. She was pickpocketed, the money being filched from her handbag. And we’re warned to be careful in Cairo. 

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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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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