Playing Russian roulette with our nation’s future…

Dear West England Bylines

Recently, we at Oxford For Europe played host via Zoom to Dominic Grieve and Michael Dougan. The main focus of questioners was of course the Russia report, of which Dominic was the principal author. Though at the time he was unable to disclose the contents of the report, he was very clear in his views about its suppression. The timing of the meeting was fortuitous, as the report was finally published, perhaps against expectations, a matter of days later.

The response to the Russia Report was predictable. Nigel Farage demanded an apology from Remainers for any accusations that his side was in cahoots with the Russians. The prime minister once more attempted to pretend he was exonerated, thereby once again gaslighting the public and treating them as stupid children. In reality the report in its way is even more toxic than if it had found clear evidence of Russian interference in the referendum.

The fact that such evidence has allegedly not been found (so far) was linked to an almost deliberate strategy of steering security forces away from any inquiries into this issue, and many others where the Russian regime might have been implicated. Government had no hesitation in lending credence to those parts of the report which implied Russian support for Scottish independence or for Corbyn. Yet it tried to denigrate any implication of similar support for the Tory party or the Brexit cause, despite it being on the record that that is where the bulk of Russian money actually went. Many Tory MPs have been forced to admit that their constituency parties accepted money from Russian oligarchs with Kremlin Connexions, including Robert Courts of Witney.

Surely we have to ask what was being offered in return?

As Bill Browder, the author of the Magnitsky Act, made clear in a recent broadcast chaired by Carol Cadwallader, the Russian regime is an equal opportunities actor: it is quite happy to back parties of the extreme left and those of the extreme right, provided it serves its general purpose of creating division and discontent among what it sees as its western adversaries. There is no contradiction whatever in this regime supporting the extreme Brexiters in the Tory party and the Corbynites within the Labour Party, at the expense of the moderates on both sides, and of course at the expense of the UK as a whole.

What really was a smoking gun in the report was the fact that, in the face of very clear evidence of illegal Russian activity in the City of London, the government did not give the security forces any steer towards investigating it, and they in turn did not feel it was their job to take the initiative. They took the view that their main responsibility was to report back to government, and at the time their principal focus was on the terrorist threat.

In contrast, even in Trump’s America, the Mueller investigation was up-and-running within weeks of allegations of Russian electoral interference. The government’s first responsibility is the safety of its people , and in this respect successive prime ministers from Cameron onwards were grossly and culpably negligent. The fact that Johnson tried to bury the report (something he now denies) is in itself deeply incriminating.

As always with Johnson, we are faced with an almost unique combination of malice and incompetence. The incompetence shines through: it was Johnson himself who delayed the reconstitution of the Intelligence and Security Committee (‘ISC’), which is quoted as the grounds for delayed publication. He had the opportunity to appoint five of the nine ISC members, and chose in all cases people he considered to be loyal Brexiters. He shot himself in the foot by appointing Dr Julian Lewis, somebody who had publicly stated his serious concerns about Russian behaviour in the UK.

It should have come as no surprise that Lewis was no Patsy. On the contrary, he allowed himself to be elected chair by the four opposition MPs on the ISC and of course that led to the report’s publication. Had Chris Grayling, as the PM wished, been elected to the chair (a post for which he had no qualifications or experience), undoubtedly we would have had to wait for another 30 years before publication. Incidentally, to the many other resounding achievements of ‘Failing Grayling’ can now be added his success in losing a rigged election.

In the event, the decision to publish the Russia Report was unanimous, with even Grayling voting in favour once publication was going to happen anyway. Perhaps the four surviving Tory MPs on the committee were suddenly seized with a pang of conscience when they had actually had a chance to read the report. Or perhaps they were bowing to the inevitable – being unable now to block publication – and saw a greater risk from reputational damage than from prime ministerial disapproval. All nine members of the committee endorsed a press release condemning the delay in publication, and also endorsed the report’s call for a further investigation into the details of the Russian role in the 2016 referendum.

This call should have had all the more force since it came from all 16 former and present members of the ISC, including the Tory Brexiters, and yet it was rejected by government almost as soon as it was published. Could we possibly ask for a better demonstration of arrogance and lack of principle?

So, massive Johnsonian cock-ups can sometimes be in the public interest. The other one which belongs in that category is the decision by Johnson/Cummings (perhaps we should now refer to this abomination as Mr Johnnings?) to remove the whip from Julian Lewis, thereby creating yet another angry ex-Tory MP who knows where the bodies are buried, and simultaneously ensuring that the Intelligence and Security Committee has – for the foreseeable future – a non-Tory majority. Perhaps that at least will ensure that it continues to do its job effectively.

Peter Burke, Oxford

This letter is an extract from Peter’s current blog for Oxford For Europe. The opinions expressed are personal and not necessarily those of OfE.

The see a vide of the meeting, click here.