Lib Dem conference: It's dark and lonely work, but I agree with Nick Clegg

On this occasion, the Lib Dems are right and the Home Secretary is wrong
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Once again, a difficult and dirty job falls to me. It's that time of year when we try to think of something positive to say about Nick Clegg. A bit later than usual, because the Liberal Democrat party conference is last in the sequence, having been shunted by the Scottish independence referendum from the middle of last month.

This year, though, the task is easier than usual because Clegg has just said something with which I agree. On his LBC radio show he took exception to Theresa May's leadership bid, by which I mean the conference speech in which she accused the Lib Dems of killing children. Clegg said: "To say about another politician, particularly someone you're governing with, 'you are putting children at risk' when it's not true is a level of outrageous misinformation that I have to say I have not witnessed in the four-and-a-half years I've been in this Government."

He has a point. The Home Secretary's speech, although it started well by telling the police they were abusing the power to stop and search, took a wrong turning when she described Britain today with the sort of language that could have come from one of those teen novels about a dystopian future: "Crimes are going unpunished, children are being abused and lives are being put at risk."

It was all because, she told her audience, most of whom were armed with smartphones and mini-tablets, "the way in which we communicate is increasingly online". This means that "our ability to obtain the data we need is declining rapidly and dangerously". By "our ability" of course she meant that of the police and the security services, but I suppose we should be grateful that she could carelessly slip into the language of a police state, which confirms that we are not a police state.

She had tried to fix this "crisis of national security", she said, with the Communications Data Bill, but the Lib Dems called it a "snoopers' charter" and "torpedoed" it. So, all she could offer was to try again if the Tories win a majority in May. Until then, she is just a powerless minister in a broken-backed government which, because of the wickedness of Clegg, would have to allow packs of child-killers to roam the country at will.

No wonder Clegg was upset. What is surprising, though, is that he is also right. Normally, I have no time for Lib Dem posturing on civil liberties, which combines a nauseating moral tone with cynical opportunism. But on this occasion they are right and the Home Secretary is wrong.

The details are technical, so bear with me. They involve the phrase "IP addresses", so bear even harder. The problem with the Communications Data Bill was that it would have required internet and phone companies to keep a record of every web page visited by every computer, tablet or phone in this country for 12 months. I don't care about the supposed civil liberties implications: if you want privacy don't do it on the internet. But the practicality and cost are formidable.

The important practical problem is that you cannot identify every device connected to the internet. There are more devices in the world than IP addresses, so these identifiers, which were supposed to be unique, have to be shared. This, rather than Lib Dem obstruction, is why "the National Crime Agency estimates that it had to drop at least 20 cases as a result of missing communications data", which is what May told her party.

Clegg is indignant because he offered to discuss with the Tories how to overcome the IP-address problem. That probably isn't possible in the short term: a new system of longer addresses is coming in, but it will take many years. In the meantime, he is right that it is outrageous for the Home Secretary to blame her coalition partners for a problem that is a fact of technological life and arithmetic.

Still, it was hard to take Clegg seriously when he said: "Often, as you know, I try to be very discreet, and all the rest of it, about the disagreements which might happen in government." That sounded like crying wolf from someone who has pursued the tactic of differentiation almost from the moment the coalition was formed and the Rose Garden glow faded.

One of David Cameron's advisers brushed off Clegg's attack, admitting that May's speech was "strong stuff but if you look at Isis the threat is real" – which is not the point. This adviser compared Clegg, who was once described as "like BA short haul pilot of the year", to a captain on the flight deck "pressing every button and flicking every switch in the hope that something will make a difference".

That may be a fair description of the Lib Dem mood at their conference this weekend, but not everything in politics is about positioning. On the so-called Snoopers' Charter, Nick Clegg is right and Theresa May should pay a price for her dishonest and unfair accusation.