The week in review: Yeo, Prism and Assad
It was one of those weeks in politics which everyone was happy to see the end of. There were odd bits of interesting news – the Prism surveillance system and Tim Yeo's inadequacies among them – but the news agenda was a little light.
Yeo was the latest victim of a sting operation with reporters posing as lobbyists, this time for a renewable energy company. You wonder whether there are any real lobbyists left or if they're all just hacks in costume. How MPs still fall for this trick is beyond me.
The chair of the energy select committee had just been interviewed by our own Alex Stevenson, who was somewhat disturbed by his extensive business interests in the precise policy area he was investigating. All above board, of course, and all highly questionable. Presumably it was these interests which made reporters think they might have a biter.
Yeo stood down as chair while he fights to clear his name. The man who took over from him forsook the salary but did have the slight disadvantage of possessing financial interests in oil. John Bercow is becoming so dismayed by the impact on parliament's reputation that he might actually do something about it.
Meanwhile William Hague was battling suggestions that the UK had made use of a covert snoopers' charter when it tapped into the US National Security Agency's Prism system. Of course, intelligence authorities can't just go looking at internet users' behaviour without a warrant. Unless someone else does it, in which case they probably can.
The foreign secretary deployed his best tonal barrage in the Commons, but his statement raised more questions than it answered. Of course, you can ask those questions until you're sore in the throat and not get much more than 'sorry – national security' in response. Welcome to the thankless tedium of scrutinising intelligence agencies.
The original Guardian story which broke the Prism system appeared to grow holes by the day, mostly through over-emphasis, but the core scandal remained. Nevertheless, most members of the public are unconcerned about people checking on their email. Polling showed they largely trust security forces. As ever, it's hard to get the public excited about civil liberties. And because they're so relaxed about it, British MEPs are in Europe watering down data protection laws to the point of meaninglessness.
Meanwhile, Syria bubbled away in the background in a way that raised some very interesting prospects for UK politics. By the end of the week, the US had decided to start arming the rebels, after concluding chemical weapons had definitely been used. The UK claims not to have made up its mind yet, but it certainly looks as if it's heading in that direction.
That then raises the question of what Labour intends to do. Usually on foreign policy issues – especially in the Middle East – Labour are on the same page as the Tories. But this time it's a little different. Miliband issued some probing questions about Syria during PMQs which the prime minister appeared unable to answer. Because it was foreign policy no-one paid any attention, but it was revealing stuff which suggested David Cameron was either under-briefed or evasive. As things stand, it appears Labour will oppose a move to send arms to rebels unless there are clear guarantees (which will inevitably be meaningless in practice) of them only being used to defend the civilian population.
Many Labour MPs are uncomfortable with that. And many Tory MPs – at least 81 of them – are on Miliband's side, rather than Cameron's. It raises the prospect of a government defeat on a major foreign policy decision. Little by little, Britain is slipping towards taking a role in the Syrian conflict, and Westminster is utterly divided on whether that's a good thing.