The Lib Dems' Hunt abstention is a miserable little compromise

If Clegg wants Hunt to be referred, he should vote in favour of the motion.

Nick Clegg's decision to order Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain from today's Commons vote on Jeremy Hunt is a significant moment in the short history of the coalition. With the exception of last year's vote on a DUP motion celebrating David Cameron's EU "veto", it is the first mass abstention by the Lib Dems while in government. Clegg's move was reportedly prompted by his fury at Cameron's refusal to refer Hunt to Alex Allan, the adviser on ministers' interests (the subject of the Labour motion), even after the Culture Secretary's dubious evidence to the Leveson inquiry. The Lib Dem abstention will not threaten the government's majority (although, in an indication of how seriously the Tories are taking the vote, Conservative MP Justin Tomlinson has been ordered to return from his honeymoon in Mauritius to vote) and the motion is, in any case, non-binding. But the act is rich with political symbolism. Confronted by Cameron's repeated failure to hold Hunt to account, the Lib Dems have reasserted their independence.

The Tories are still downplaying the significance of the move, with one aide noting that it is "a party political motion not government business". On the Today programme this morning, housing minister Grant Shapps said it was simply "a reminder that we have different perspectives on things." Conservative backbenchers, however, are proving less understanding and have already warned Clegg not to count on their support the next time that scandal befalls a Lib Dem cabinet minister (as it frequently does). One Tory MP described the move as "an act of war".

Labour will welcome another opportunity to exploit coalition discontent but many of the party's MPs will rightly denounce this as another "miserable little compromise" by Clegg. If the Lib Dems believe that Hunt should be referred to Allan, then they should simply vote in favour of the motion, not abstain. Once again, Clegg has said one thing (refer Hunt) and done another (abstained), the problem that has long dogged his leadership.

The defence proffered by his office is that he did not want to support a party (Labour) with a history of "cosy" relations with the Murdochs - the Lib Dems are proud of their status as the one major party never to fall under the spell of the Wizard of Oz. But this backwards-looking defence does not bear scrutiny. Labour is now led by a man who has repeatedly apologised for his failure to intervene earlier over phone-hacking and who led the charge against News International last summer. Another explanation put forward this morning is that the Lib Dems cannot vote with a party that "lied about" the Iraq war. Again, this defence makes no sense when one considers Miliband's early opposition to the war.

From a political perspective, Clegg's decision to abstain is the worst of all possible worlds. He will earn the ire of the Tories, whilst receiving no compensatory support from Labour. In the meantime, attention moves to the Leveson inquiry, where one Nicholas William Peter Clegg is appearing from 10am.

Nick Clegg has ordered Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain on today's Commons vote on Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?