The old cliché is that a week is a long time in politics. In the case of the three weeks since the referendum, there has been enough shocking news to last a geological epoch. But now we have a new prime minister, Theresa May, who will be installed in Downing Street on Wednesday evening. All of the Brexit chaos aside, it also means that almost inevitably the first casualty of her prime ministry is our digital freedoms as we’re just weeks away from granting the state even more legal powers to spy on every single one of us. With May as PM, we’re now in a world where NSA-style bulk surveillance – the type that Edward Snowden warned us about – is inevitable.
The Investigatory Powers Bill
Before the referendum, back when Theresa May was home secretary, she was in charge of pushing the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPBill) through Parliament. This was a proposed new law that would basically provide unquestionable legal legitimacy to the security services to log and track everything we do online. While this has been going on for some time, it has been rather murky – and now that we all know it is going on, the intention of the law was to make sure that everything is legally above board.
Obviously the correct reaction from everyone who knows even a little about how the internet works has reacted in horror; the Bill does not just propose data retention, but also the crippling of encryption. And at the time of writing, it has passed its second reading in the House of Commons, with fairly minimal opposition.
Things are going to get worse and it is very unlikely that it’ll be prevented from becoming law. Here’s why.
Theresa May’s Fingerprints are All Over It
When Theresa May ascends into the top job, she’ll be at the height of her political power. Elected in a coronation, she won’t have yet had a chance to upset anyone as prime minister. And it’s an iron rule of politics that the longer a ruler is in the job, the harder it is to get things done; that’s why commentators often talk about what a president or prime minister has planned for the “first 100 days”, the thought being that those days are when they will be most successful.
What magnifies this effect is that the Bill is very definitely tied to Theresa May and her legacy as home secretary. The IPBill getting shot down would reflect badly on her as well as making it look like she’s not in charge at a time when her party and country desperately need someone to be in charge. If she wasn’t closely associated with it, she might be able to kick it into the long grass and hope it goes away – but her fingerprints are all over it.
So Theresa May will start on Wednesday with a fresh mandate from her party to lead them, and with Tory MPs wanting to be on their best behaviour; any opposition from within her own party to the plans is going to be minimal. After all, who wants to upset the new boss who could promote you into a cushy job? And even for the old-timers who don’t really have any hopes of being promoted into the cabinet, not causing trouble is going to be seen as important in the aftermath of the Brexit vote as the party will want to appear united in order to heal wounds and possibly prepare for an imminent General Election.
The New Home Secretary is Likely to be Even More Authoritarian
Theresa May’s first job, after getting her hands on the nuclear codes and being briefed on the aliens we’ve got locked up in a secret base, will be to appoint a Cabinet, including a new home secretary. And if you didn’t like what Cameron did, then you’re going to hate the Theresa May government.
While in theory May has a free hand to appoint whoever she likes to whatever jobs she likes, in reality she’ll be want to dish out cushy jobs to people whose loyalty she wants to buy. And home secretary is one of the four “Great Offices of State", and is thus a very prestigious position.
Given that May supported the Remain campaign, it seems fairly likely that some of her new top lieutenants are going to be prominent Brexiteers, a move which would recognise their power and their side’s victory. So could that mean a home secretary in the form of Chris Grayling, Priti Patel or Liam Fox? Picking names at this point is like trying to forecast next week’s Lottery numbers but suffice to say, the political direction the Cabinet will take is likely to be several steps further to the right, with all of the authoritarian tendencies that entails. So don’t expect the new home secretary to care too much about our digital freedoms.
Labour is in Disarray
OK, there’s no hope for the Tories to stop it but what about the shower of incompetents who used to be known as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the Labour party?
Unfortunately we shouldn’t expect much from them either, not least because they are barely functioning as a political party at the moment.
Before the referendum, the party put up very little opposition, and shadow home secretary Andy Burnham expressed a typically fluctuating response – sometimes saying he’ll oppose it, sometimes saying he’s in favour. When it came to actually voting, on the first reading Labour abstained and on the second they actually voted in favour. The only party to oppose it throughout has been the Liberal Democrats, and that party only has eight seats.
It’s incredibly disheartening, especially given that Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson is someone who has long been a friend of anyone who cares about digital. He actually understands technology and before he was elected deputy he had a strong record of opposing similarly authoritarian measures. He’s also on record having worked with the Open Rights Group and once argued that the surveillance state has “run amok”.
If we’re lucky, Watson will once again start standing up against the IPBill – but sadly, even if he does he may prove ineffective because of the internal Labour disaster (as pointed out by former Pirate Party leader Loz Kaye yesterday). Because he has played a role in trying to (rightfully, in my view) get rid of Corbyn, this will no doubt make him extraordinarily unpopular with the Corbynite wing of the party, and will almost certainly make Corbyn’s cultist supporters sceptical of anything that Watson supports.
And what about Corbyn himself? Even if he does manage to hang on as leader, he’s never shown much of an interest in surveillance – hence why under his leadership his party has been supporting the IPBill.
No Chance of Media Coverage
Amazingly, despite the political chaos at the moment Parliament is functioning normally. Just this week, committees of MPs were attempting to scrutinise the Bill. The problem is that it just isn’t a priority for anyone else at the moment.
What this means is that until the day of the vote, and given the opposition are not opposing it, it is unlikely that it will receive much media attention – something that is crucial if its opponents are to win support from the public at large. Only when the media convinces sufficiently large numbers of people to get motivated can the political winds change, and will individual MPs consider their vote more carefully, lest it cost them precious votes at the next election.
In any case, as the last three weeks have shown, politics has changed completely as our priorities have been completely shaken up. Three weeks ago we might have cared about our privacy, or other important issues like the environment. But for the next few years there’s only going to be one topic that matters: Brexit. And this means that ultimately, the IPBill will not get the scrutiny it deserves from the media or politicians; if its fate does change, it is likely to be not because of something intrinsic in the Bill itself (as not passing it would the right thing to do), but because it could somehow become a useful bargaining chip as politicians jockey for their preferred outcome on Brexit.
Sadly, without a miracle, it seems that we’re going to have to get used to a massive land grab in terms of the powers of the state to surveil its citizens; as with Theresa May in Number 10 and the transformed political landscape, passage of the Bill has become almost a grim inevitability.