The police questioned a man for criticising Ukip on Twitter. Photo: Getty
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Criticise Ukip on Twitter? You could get a visit from the police

Cambridge MP Julian Huppert is questioning why Cambridgeshire Police officers visited blogger Michael Abberton's home after he sent out a fact-checked list of ten Ukip policies on Twitter.

A tweet, the police, and ten Ukip policies. It doesn't sound like a particularly conventional formula for a crime drama, but a rather sinister-sounding story is currently unfolding from a blogger's bedroom in Cambridgeshire that leaves both police and Ukip party officials with a number of pressing questions to answer.

Michael Abberton, whose blog is called Axe of Reason, tweeted out a fact-checked version of a poster listing ten controversial policies attributed to Ukip. Abberton, who describes himself on his blog as "Definitely biased to the left", explained how he wanted to check the list of policies really belonged to the eurosceptic party, and so fact-checked each one, before tweeting it out last Monday.

Here's the tweet:

Abberton then wrote a blog post on Sunday detailing how the police came round to his house on Saturday afternoon to question him about the tweet, and asked him to "take it down", as well as not to make public the fact that they had come round to visit him.

The Cambridgeshire Police have confirmed to BuzzFeed today that they did indeed visit his home, commenting that it was to check whether offences had been committed under the Representation of the People Act, a law that deals with the electoral system:

We were called with a complaint about a message on social media at about 12.40pm on Friday. Inquiries were made as to whether any offences had been committed under the Representation of the People Act but none were revealed and no further action was taken...

And a spokesman for Cambridgeshire Police told the Guardian:

A Ukip councillor came across a tweet which he took exception to. The name of the person on the tweet was identified and that individual was spoken to. We looked at this for offences and there was nothing we could actually identify that required police intervention. Clearly, the councillor was unhappy about the tweets. If every political person was unhappy about what somebody else said about their views, we would have no politics.

Abberton's MP, Lib Dem Julian Huppert, tells me he has written to the Cambridge area commander, and is "awaiting a response from her about exactly what happened".

He is concerned that the police visit was inappropriate:

I struggle to see exactly what it could have been that would have been an offence in this case, and I'm looking forward to hearing the justification. Because otherwise from what I've seen, it does seem like an inappropriate for the police to be involved, and certainly Michael Abberton's description of the conversation suggests that they went a lot further than just trying to establish if he's committed an offence, but went to the level of asking him to take down the comments, not to tell anyone that they'd been round, various other things like that., which assuming that to be true, it is clearly inappropriate...

The clear question is whether there is a genuine allegation that he committed a criminal offence. And if there is such an allegation, then clearly it's alright for the police to investigate it, but I haven't seen anything to suggest that there was a clear allegation of potential criminal activity. And it's clearly inappropriate for the police to take action on political disagreement if there's no real sense that there was a criminal activity involved, and having seen the tweets that he [Abberton] sent out, I can't see in what way it would have violated the Representation of the People Act, I can't see any way in which it could be seen as being threatening or abusive.

Huppert has been in touch with the blogger electronically this morning, and remarks that his constituent is "clearly concerned" about the situation. "The idea that this could be seen as intimidation, whether pushed by police officers or whether pushed by Ukip is clearly an alarming one," he adds. "The role of the police is clearly to defend a free and open democracy, and given that I haven't seen any detailed allegations that he'd committed any sort of offence, it does seem odd and inappropriate for the police to be questioning him like that, and I can see why people would find that very intimidatory."

The Cambridge MP sees "a lot more scrutiny now of what people within Ukip are saying", adding, "I can see that many of them are uncomfortable with being challenged on their manifesto and on comments that their spokespeople have made."

Secretary of Ukip's Cambridge branch, Peter Burkinshaw, says he hadn't heard the story, not being "into social networking", but comments: "I wouldn't have thought it was criminal to tweet your opinion about something if it's not slanderous. I don't understand why the police would go round... In principle, if the man's just voicing an opinion, I can't see why it would involve the police at all."

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle