Will the Lobbying Bill give Cameron the power to close down ConservativeHome?
I'm presuming that the headline on this article is what John Rentoul would call a QTWTAIN. But over at Labour List Mark Ferguson is convinced that Ed Miliband will soon have the power to close it down - and that David Cameron will have the same power over this website. Ferguson's anxieties stem from the bill on lobbying and transparency which will come before the Commons when it returns in September. Today, the Sunday Times puts that claim in context from behind its paywall. Charities are up in arms about the bill, which it claims will curb their campaigning.
The nub of the matter is the difference between campaigning with a political dimension and campaigning for a political party - one which can sometimes be elusive. The paper claims that the bill will slap a limit on what charities can spend to promote causes they support during a general election, and place new registration conditions on them. The Cabinet Office is quoted as saying: “The intention is to bring greater transparency where third parties campaign in a way which supports a particular political party or its candidates.”
There are campaign groups that are seen to be on the centre-right (such as the Taxpayers' Alliance) and others that have a view shared by members of all political parties and none (such as Big Brother Watch). It's reasonable to presume that such organisations would also be covered by the terms of the bill. At the very least, then, it will be important to ensure that any new conditions apply only to the period during which election campaigns run, and are tightly drawn - or else the activities of charities and campaigners would indeed become impossible.
Much therefore depends on the wording of the bill. The scrutiny of bills by Parliament is notoriously slapdash and the decisions of courts sometimes wayward. This returns me to where I started. Ferguson writes that the draft legislation would also give Miliband the power to count Labour List as part of the party's election spending and that "if we spend over £32,000 during election year, we would need – under the law – to ask the permission of the Labour Party to continue operating". It follows that Cameron would gain the same power over this site.
That's the view of Labour List's lawyers at any rate, M'lud. I'm sure that Francis Maude doesn't lie awake at night scheming up ways of shutting down ConservativeHome. And I'm certain that nothing gives David Cameron greater joy each morning than reading it. But discretion is the better part of etc, which is why we are taking the precaution of running the bill past Our Learned Friends. Many Tories would be pleased by 38 Degrees being poked in the eye with a sharp stick. But plans that invite cheers today can be followed by cries of "censorship" tomorrow.