When Cabinet met this morning, ministers didn’t discuss the Communications Data Bill, which the government hopes to get into the forthcoming Queen’s Speech. But there is a growing sense in Westminster that it won’t make it out of the Commons alive – if it even manages to make it into the Commons. Here are three different scenarios for what could happen to this controversial piece of legislation:
1. The Bill fails to make it into the Queen’s Speech.
Discussions about the legislative programme for the next parliamentary year are taking place at the moment. For some motherhood-and-apple-pie bills, those negotiations are short and sweet: those at the top of government will agree that they are in favour of motherhood and apple pie, knowing that when the legislation has its second reading in the House of Commons, MPs will be falling over the green benches with excitement at being able to make lengthy and emotional speeches about apple pies in their constituencies and their respect for motherhood. The government can put this Bill pride of place in the speech.
But for bills that are going to cause a fuss, there is more thought. If legislation is announced which is then defeated in the Commons, it’s embarrassing for the government. The stakes are higher for the Snooping Bill: this is a piece of legislation that Nick Clegg has already vetoed once, and the chances are that Nick Clegg will want to go through its finer detail before allowing it to feature in the fanfare of the state opening of parliament, only to veto it later. So we could well see a veto before the Queen even enters the Palace of Westminster.
One other factor worth considering is how much of a part this particular piece of legislation plays in the personal pride of Theresa May. She is pushing for other announcements in the Queen’s Speech: is the Snooping Bill so important to her personally that she won’t budge, or does she have her eyes set on other prizes?
2. MPs block the legislation at second reading.
There were 40 Tory MPs who signed Dominic Raab’s letter to Theresa May in December which said they would ‘find it difficult to support the proposals’ in the absence of reassurance over a number of concerns raised by the joint committee considering the legislation. A sustained campaign by civil libertarians in the Conservative party could well raise many more signatures.
Even if Clegg gives it the go-ahead, which still requires quite a lot of things to fall into place, Liberal Democrat backbenchers will come under huge pressure to rebel from their grassroots members, who are already furious with the party’s handling of the Justice and Security Bill. It’s one thing telling Lib Dem conference that this is a better bill because of the Lib Dems, as the leadership likes to do with many pieces of legislation. But it’s another having to explain why David Davis and co voted against something but Lib Dem MPs stayed disciplined.
And when the Labour party scents rebellion on both those benches, chances are it will forget its authoritarian leanings and decide that this is a truly terrible bill, and one that must be defeated. That’s what those backbenchers in the Conservative party who oppose it are hoping, at any rate.
3. The bill flounders in the Lords.
Don’t forget that not only is the House of Lords an unruly beast, it also contains many legal eagles who will pick even more holes in this legislation than those peers on the joint committee did with the first draft. Lord Strasburger described it as a ‘honeypot for casual hackers, blackmailers, criminals large and small from around the world, and foreign states’.