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Queen's Speech 2015: A series of hostages to fortune

The Conservatives cannily disarmed Labour's attack lines in the election. But they may end up counting the cost in the not too distant future.

Shortly after turning a majority of four into one of 96, Harold Wilson entertained a group of foreign dignitaries at Number 10. The conversation turned to golf. “How’s your handicap, Harold?” one diplomat asked. Quick as a flash, the Prime Minister replied: “Up from four to 96.”

David Cameron may feel as if he is in a somewhat similar position. Far from being master of all he surveys, his new, Conservative majority of 12 gives him considerably less freedom of manoeuvre than his old, Liberal-Conservative majority of 77.  As well as now having to secure concessions from his right flank, he’s committed to a manifesto with a variety of commitments that are, to put it mildly, somewhat tricky to implement.

The attempt to revive the success of Right to Buy – and with it, the Conservative advance into working-class communities that had previously been solidly Labour – is one such mess. You can have an interesting argument about the rights and wrongs of the original Right to Buy policy, but, crucially, it was the government’s property to sell off if it wanted to. Housing Associations aren’t part of the government, and it’s difficult to see how the law will be drafted without allowing private tenants to forcibly buy properties from their landlords. It will almost certainly be the subject of a legal challenge, even if makes its way through both Houses of Parliament. But before all that, Cameron has achieved the rare feat of uniting the Institute of Economic Affairs – who are, rightly, concerned about the implication for property rights – with Generation Rent – who are, equally rightly, troubled by the implication for Britain’s vanishing supply of social housing.

So the government had two options. Option one: they could quietly ditch it or kick it into the long grass, as they’ve done with the promise to repeal the Human Rights Act (there are three big legal problems: firstly, the Act is an essential part of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, secondly, the Act still has force in Scotland, thirdly, large parts of the Act have already entered common law making the whole exercise somewhat redundant). Option two: proceed full steam ahead, or at least give the appearance of doing so. They’ve gone for option two.

It’ll be a while before we can say for sure whether or not the government is actually going to pick a fight with the Opposition, its more libertarian backbenchers, the housing associations and the rest or is just waiting to let it die quietly in the Lords. It may be with one U-Turn behind them on the Human Rights Act and another on cutting the size of the Commons by 50, they simply don’t want to give the impression of being rudderless too early. (Creating 50 losers, many of them on your own side, is a recipe for chaos when you only have a majority of 12.)

But it’s a fairly wonkish issue so whenever the government gives up on it, there are unlikely to be many headlines about it unless the Conservative administration proves so utterly wretched and incompetent that the running theme of the next five years is “Tory U-turn” is plausible but not particularly likely.

More likely to be a problem are the Conservatives’ fiscal commitments. Many of these were attempts to defuse Labour attack lines – 30 free hours of childcare, £8bn for the NHS – that have now turned into unexploded bombs underneath the government. George Osborne now has the problem of finding money for all that, having made a virtue of removing almost all his freedom to manoeuvre.  Rises in income tax, national insurance and value added tax have all been ruled out and will be made illegal for the duration of the parliament.

This feels a lot like asking for trouble. What happens if say, Greece leaves the Euro, sparking around of contagion and another series of bail-outs? Or if the British recovery – itself a recovery marred by low productivity, relatively weak earnings growth and yet more personal debt – peters out between now and 2020? And added to that, how will the Conservatives do all that while meeting their target of closing the deficit by the end of the parliament?
That last may not be necessary. Cameron and Osborne were able to go into this election having fallen short of a deficit reduction programme they rubbished when it was brought forward by Alistair Darling, and still won a majority. It may be that they can be re-elected in 2020 even if they similarly fall short. But it may be that in not taking the opportunity to discard their more fanciful pledges during their post-re-election honeymoon,  the Conservatives find themselves in a great deal of trouble further down the line.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.