Artillery Row

Cloak and no dagger

Were David Cameron and Theresa May negligently complicit in Russia’s meddling?

The needless nine month delay to the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s “Russia” Report has fostered suspicion that Boris Johnson must have seen something in it he wanted to bury for as long as possible. Now that the Report has been published, the response has been a mixture of disappointment and bewilderment. Why the obfuscation?

That sense of disappointment has been focused on the portion of the Report relating to possible Russian meddling in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Although heavily redacted in its published form, the Report is explicit that it makes no allegation and reveals no evidence to suggest Russian subversion was attempted – not least because successive British governments have not tasked the security services with investigating the possibility.

The Report finds the government’s and security services’ “lack of curiosity” about discovering the extent of Russian interest, baffling. It states briefly, and without proper elaboration, that Russian efforts to meddle in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum were known about. So, assuming he was among those in the know, why did David Cameron not initiate intelligence gathering and mitigation of potential Russian interference ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum? And given that Boris Johnson had received the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Report in October 2019, why did he put it aside rather than act upon it before, the following month, calling the general election that subsequently gave him his majority?

To the conspiracy theorist, David Cameron’s relaxed attitude can be explained either by his desire to avoid scandal or his sympathy for the ends that Russia might will. But if the assumption is that any Russian attempts to influence the result of the Brexit referendum would be on the side of Leave, why would a Prime Minister so tied-up in advocating Remain that his continuation in Downing Street depended upon it, not seek every means to protect the campaign from such malign Russian interference? The conspiracy on the part of the then British government only has a plausible motive if Moscow’s meddling could be deployed on the side of Remain. And nobody in the intelligence community has yet come forward to suggest any such intent.

Whilst we await the former Prime Minister’s explanation for his inaction, it is possible that rather than being a conspirator against his own side (and against his self-interest) David Cameron simply cocked-up. The lack of foresight, insight, and strategic vision that he brought to planning the terms of the Scottish IndyRef were often the stuff of Unionist frustration, and yet still his side won. Might victory despite offering the best terrain to his opponents in 2014 have emboldened his indifference to properly preparing the ground for a Remain victory in 2016? If he was keen to avoid any form of investigation that might reveal a scandal, to what end was that scandal aimed? It was not Russian involvement to swing a Remain result and not, equally clearly, to subvert British foreign policy to suit Moscow, given the consistently poor relations that Cameron, May and Johnson maintained with President Putin.

It might equally be asked to what end was Theresa May so incurious about Russian subversion of the Brexit vote? Being herself a Remain voter who endured the torments of trying to get through Parliament a deal few on either side or in either House liked, would not the case for her brand of soft Brexit, or indeed Brexit In Name Only, have been strengthened by the presentation of official evidence to suggest the vote to Leave was under a cloud? Given how many staws she did ineffectually clutch, it is noticeable that this was one field of hay through which she did not trespass. Conceivably, she did not think it would yield the desired harvest.

It was five months’ after May’s squandering of a clear majority in the 2017 general election, that the parliamentarians of the Intelligence and Security Commottee – then chaired by Dominic Grieve – announced they would inquire into Russian activity in “political processes”, citing as motivation “public and parliamentary concern.” In addition to studying the written evidence, the Committee spent eight months taking witness testimony before in October 2019 sending the Report to Downing Street (where Johnson was now the tenant) for security clearance ahead of publication. That process was expected to take at most weeks, not nine months. In the second of those months the general election dispensed with Grieve’s parliamentary services and it has mysteriously taken until now for the ISC to elect its new chairman (with Julian Lewis gazumping the government’s intended place-man, Chris Grayling). That is the official explanation for why it has taken until now for the Report to be published. But it is a process that Downing Street could have expedited if it had wanted to do so.

So why Boris Johnson’s delay? The period investigated by the Committee was overwhelmingly that of Cameron’s and May’s premierships. Thus, embarrassing as the accusations of government indifference to the Russian threat are, Johnson was well placed to avoid much of the direct opprobrium.

Timing holds a clue to Johnson’s initial reluctance to publish it. When he was sent it on 17 October 2019, he was desperate to find a way out of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and the chaotic Westminster balance of powerlessness that May had bequeathed him. Publishing a Report so heavily critical of successive governments’ ability to counter foreign influence in the election process could have been used by the blocking majority of anti-Brexit and Opposition MPs to refuse Johnson the path to dissolution and the general election that he so desperately needed. Might he have calculated that the Report could wait until after he had secured his Westminster majority for dissolution?

The conspiracy on the part of the then British government only has a plausible motive if Moscow’s meddling could be deployed on the side of Remain. And nobody in the intelligence community has yet come forward to suggest any such intent.

But this does not explain sitting on it until July the following year. Indeed, between March and July, the national focus on Covid-19 would have provided a succession of opportunities to bury bad news. These openings were missed. Now that the Report is finally published we can see that it is indeed embarrassing, but insufficiently damning to explain the length of suppression caused by the foot-dragging in instigating the process to elect a new ISC chairman.

In its initial response to the Report’s publication, the Government has indicated it will not be prodded into a formal investigation into the 2016 referendum. Conspiracy theorists will make much of this, although perhaps some would not be persuaded even if a couple more years were spent searching for this Holy Grail.

The Government has also provided a succession of full or partial rebuttals to many of the indictments the Report makes about the failure to take the Russian threat sufficiently seriously. These rebuttals include pointing out where the Government has begun doing as the Report requests  – for instance “naming and shaming” identified attempts by Russian state-directed cyber hackers, as the Government did last week over efforts to hack Covid-19 research at Oxford University.

The instituting of the Defending Democracy programme, led from the Cabinet Office, also goes some way to address the Report’s findings that Whitehall needs to tighten its focus and strategic resourcing on how to ensure elections remain free and fair.  As the Report acknowledges, it helps that the UK’s paper-and-pencil voting system remains sufficiently old school to thwart “offensive Cyber”, although a redacted section of the Report suggests there are seemingly other aspects of the process that may be more vulnerable. These areas, the Government hints, are precisely where the Defending Democracy programme now has a focus.

It did not need the ISC to spot that London has become the playground – and money launderer – for Russian billionaires or that they develop through charitable and other social engagements the opportunities to hobnob with this country’s decision-makers and gate-keepers. But the Report does highlight that whilst MPs must register any payment above £100, the same level of detailed disclosure of peers’ financial links is not required. It is hard to envisage the legislators of the upper house continuing to enjoy this discretion indefinitely. Yet, changing the House of Lords’ code of conduct is the responsibility not of the Government but of the Lords’ Conduct Committee (made up of five peers and four independent members). The Government’s response is “confident” that this committee will give the need for change “due consideration.”

Greater political push-back may be expected to the recommendation that MI5 should have operational control of safeguarding elections (working within a framework set by the Home Office’s Office for Security and Counter-terrorism) and not – as at present – the Department for Digital, Media and Sport and the Electoral Commission who are not tooled-up for the level of IT skulduggery to which foreign actors may stoop. The case for amending the Official Secrets Act and forcing foreign agents to register as such is finely balanced.

The Russia Report’s failure to reveal government acquiescence in the subversion of British democracy is a cruel disappointment to many who hoped it would explain a succession of events to which they may never come readily to terms. But that is no reason to doubt that the wait has been worth it, regardless of how unnecessary that delay has been.

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