In July 2020 the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) long-awaited Russia Report was finally published. Completed in July 2019 under the leadership of then ISC Chair Dominic Grieve, it went through extensive checking, vetting and approval processes before being presented to prime minister Boris Johnson in October 2019. Normally, such a report would be cleared by 10 Downing Street in ten days, but there is nothing normal about Boris Johnson’s administration. Why are we still talking about this in Spring 2021? Because it’s unfinished business.
The shock reveal was not Russian interference in the 2016 referendum, as many had speculated, but that successive Tory governments had known of Russian meddling in our democracy since the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, and had done NOTHING about it. The only reason they could claim not to know if there had been Russian interference in the Brexit referendum was that they had not investigated it. No wonder in 2018 two Russian operatives thought it was OK to saunter into the country and attempt to assassinate a former Russian citizen and his daughter, still a Russian citizen, in a public park, in broad daylight, in the quiet Wiltshire town of Salisbury, and with a biological weapon.
It was clear that the government still had not done anything about Russian interference by December 2019, when Dominic Raab complained that Russia was interfering in the general election by revealing Tory plans to privatise the NHS. He was most put out. How disloyal of Jeremy Corbyn to publish details leaked by Russians, even if those details showed the Tories were planning to do something the vast majority of the electorate was dead set against. How unpatriotic of the Commie cove! There was just one problem with Raab’s claim. The Telegraph, that bastion of Boriservatism, had published extracts of that very same document five months previously …
This was a painful lesson for the Conservatives. They were not Vladimir Putin’s pet. He was not much interested in their agenda. All Putin wanted was for Western Europe to become destabilized and the EU to break up. If Russia’s traditional enemy in ‘the Great Game’ could be used as the instrument of that destruction, so much the better. Indeed, destruction of the United Kingdom itself would be a bonus. In those famous words from 1966, the Russians think it’s all over …
According to Luke Harding, author of Shadow State, Aleksandr Yakovenko, Russia’s Ambassador to London from 2011 to 2019, was heard to say on his return to Russia, where he was showered with honours, “We have crushed the British to the ground, they are on their knees and they will not rise for a very long time.” What an humiliation. That we were joined in this state of abjection by Trump’s United States is cold comfort. The wounds Trump inflicted on his country appear to be relatively superficial and easily reversed by the more benign President Biden, compared to those inflicted on our country by the cynical triumvirate of Johnson, Gove and Cummings, and their Rosa Klebb-like enabler Patel.
Johnson said a retrospective assessment of the EU referendum was unnecessary: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum.” But you won’t see any evidence if you deliberately look the other way, you numpty!
It was sobering to discover that the security services do not have our backs, and that there is nobody watching the watchers to ensure that our own government does not deviate into delinquent behaviour and degenerate into the sort of regime they would help to depose in any other country. Neither MI5 nor MI6 can investigate Russian interference in our democracy unless the government expressly orders them to do so. Besides, the Russia Report concluded that since much of the Russian interference took place in the open, through disinformation for example, for which other government officials are responsible, it did not need to be the prime focus of the security services. The intelligence community avoided investigating because it did not want to get involved in domestic politics, regarding questions about Russian influence in the Brexit referendum as a ‘hot potato’.
Inevitably, by adopting a policy of hanging back, British security services made Russian interference even easier. The Russia Report mentions credible open-source studies that point to Russia’s use of bots and trolls to misinform, as well as pro-Brexit and anti-European Union articles on Russian foreign language media outlets. The Russian propaganda campaign appears to have been targeted more at suppression of pro-EU votes than a positive attempt to push people to vote for Brexit, but no psychological study of its impact on British voters has ever been conducted, and with the passage of years it may be too late to do so now.
Russian influence in the UK is the new normal
Given our government is doing nothing about Russian meddling, while ‘Londongrad’ continues to be awash with Russian money, and the son of the former KGB London station chief now sits in the House of Lords (and even needed Russian permission for his baronial name), MP Kevan Jones’s ‘new normal’ statement appears to be a fair assessment. The Russia Report found that extreme wealth had helped Russian oligarchs with links to the Kremlin to form connections at the highest levels of British society, with access to UK companies and political figures. It added: “It is not just the oligarchs either – the arrival of Russian money has resulted in a growth industry of ‘enablers’: lawyers, accountants and estate agents have all played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, and formed a ‘buffer’ of Westerners who are de facto agents of the Russian state.”
Some members of the House of Lords are also (in some respects) on Moscow’s payroll, thanks to business interests linked to Russia. Some work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state. However, as the requirements for what needs to be declared in the Lords’ register of members’ interests are so lax as to be almost pointless, it is harder to research and track. The dark money swirling around MPs is easier to spot, as the threshold at which they must declare gifts is £100 – so, much of it is hidden in plain sight.
At the time of the release of the Russia Report, I did a little digging, cross-referencing the House of Commons Members’ Interests Register with the Electoral Commissions’ database of political donations. There are some surprising names on the list. Twenty-one of the thirty-nine names, or 54 per cent, were declared Eurosceptic MPs, while 58 per cent of Tory MPs were nominally pro-Remain. It suggests a man who leaned towards Euroscepticism hedged his bets well.
You’ll notice that male recipients of Russian largesse outnumber women six-to-one, whereas in the Conservative party as a whole there are only three male MPs to every female MP. Whether that is because women are less likely to accept donations from risky sources, or because Russians have a natural bias towards male politicians, it is hard to say.
Six cabinet ministers received Russian-linked donations of between £5,000 to £58,000:
- Robert Buckland
- Simon Hart
- Brandon Lewis
- Alok Sharma
- Rishi Sunak
- Anne-Marie Trevelyan (no longer a cabinet minister since international development was merged with the Foreign office)
Eleven junior ministers received Russian-linked donations of between £5,000 to £33,800, although in some cases this was before they became ministers:
- Nigel Adams
- Simon Clarke (resigned September 2020)
- Robert Courts
- Michael Ellis
- Chris Heaton-Harris
- Tom Pursglove
- Will Quince
- Iain Stewart
- Justin Tomlinson
- Robin Walker
- John Whittingdale
Two (then) newly appointed members of the ISC who received Russian-linked donations:
- Theresa Villiers (£2,000)
- Mark Pritchard (£5,000)
Sixteen backbench MPs who received Russian-linked donations:
- Karen Bradley (while in the cabinet)
- Conor Burns (while a junior minister)
- Alun Cairns (while in the cabinet)
- James Davies
- Liam Fox
- Mark Garnier
- Robert Halfon
- Jeremy Hunt
- Jason McCartney
- Joy Morrissey (when a candidate to become an MP)
- Sheryll Murray
- Sarah Newton (while a junior minister)
- Andrew Percy (while a junior minister)
- Mary Robinson (when a candidate to become an MP)
- Chris Skidmore
- Martin Vickers
- David Cameron (from Chernukhin)
- Guto Bebb (while a junior minister)
- James Wharton
- Craig Whittaker
There’s another way Russia-linked money ends up in your MP’s pocket: clubs. It’s all about influence. For example, in December 2014 a Russian donor made four donations to United & Cecil Club (U&CC). Between that date and the general election in May 2015, U&CC donated to 65 constituencies, two of them twice. The Labour party also receives donations from clubs, of course, but not nearly on the same scale as the Conservative Party.
Russian donors with British passports
While the amounts of money involved may impress ordinary members of the public, in the great scheme of things they are paltry. Russia bought its influence in the Tory Party at a knockdown price. Naturally, the Conservative party downplays the donations. Brandon Lewis, who, inexplicably, has been the biggest recipient of Russian money, went on the offensive: “I have had donations from Lubov (Chernukhin) and also Alexander Temerko, as has the Conservative Party. They are British citizens; they are prominent British citizens. Alexander himself has invested in the renewable energy industry in the East of England. So, these are British citizens, they have the absolute right as any other British citizen does, to invest in and be part of the British political scene.”
It is almost as if our political leaders have not heard of sleeper agents. The two donors named by Lewis are the most important amongst nine named in the Russia Report (redacted). Camera-shy Ms Chernukhin, the wife of Vladimir Putin’s former deputy finance minister Victor Chernukhin, is Britain’s biggest-ever female political donor. She once paid £160,000 to play tennis with Boris Johnson and has donated almost £2m to the party, in total, over a nine-year period since 2012.
Odd then, that Ms Chernukhin’s company Capital Construction and Development Ltd has filed accounts showing itself to be consistently around £8m in debt over the past few years, and that she and her husband should live in an £18m palatial residence at Regent’s Park in London, owned by a company registered in a tax haven. Where was the money she was donating coming from? Alarm was raised when it was revealed that her husband received $8m from a billionaire ally to Putin just before the 2016 referendum. There is no known link, but it is suspicious. Internal emails at the Electoral Commission show that the donations were flagged as suspicious, but no action was taken. Russia expert Ed Lucas says the Chernukhins are not “fit and proper” donors.
Unlike Ms Chernukhin, Alexander Temerko did not always donate under his own name. He also gave sizable donations in the name of his company, first OGN and later Aquind. In total, he has given in excess of £1m, and he is altogether more sinister than the Chernukhins. He may be Ukranian-born, but don’t forget many Ukranians are ethnic Russians, so being Ukranian is no guarantee that he would naturally be inclined to be more loyal to the UK than to Russia. Writing her 2019 article on Temerko, Reuters journalist Catherine Belton said of him:
“Publicly, industrialist and Conservative Party donor Alexander Temerko presents himself as an opponent of Brexit and a dissident critic of Vladimir Putin. In conversations with this reporter, he’s voiced strong support for Boris Johnson’s bid to lead Britain out of the EU, praised senior Russian intelligence officials and spoken about his past work with the Kremlin.”
Temerko recounts that Boris Johnson decided to back Leave after he arranged for him to meet with a group of Eastern European businessmen in February 2016, but he has stopped short of revealing their identities. When Johnson was Foreign Secretary, he and Temerko were drinking buddies, and according to Temerko they spent these sessions plotting Theresa May’s downfall. He bragged that you need twenty MPs to get rid of an MP, but he had thirty-seven on his payroll.
The plot came to fruition in 2019. Aquind advisor James Wharton, a former rabidly pro-Brexit MP who lost his seat in Theresa May’s 2017 general election and now sits in the Lords, ran Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign. Publicly backing Jeremy Hunt in the leadership contest was probably an insurance policy, lashing Hunt to the mast of a Kremlin Brexit in the unlikely event that he defeated Johnson.
At the time, the Electoral Commission judged all the donations mentioned above to be permissible, but when you know Temerko plotted with Johnson to bring down a British prime minister, and the Russians are meddling in our democracy unchecked, should they not be revisited? This should be a scandal every bit as big as the MP expenses scandal of 2009, but as usual our mainstream press is not doing a good job of exposing Tory sleaze.
Perhaps these dodgy links between the Conservative Party and suspected Kremlin assets will end the lazy British perception that, being communists, the Russians would automatically back someone like Jeremy Corbyn. The Russians have not been communist since the Berlin Wall fell back in the 1980s. Boris Johnson is far more their type of guy. He is just the sort of agent, willing or unwitting, that they look for. KGB defector Yuri Bezmenov once said:
“My KGB instructors specifically made the point: never bother with leftists … Cynical, egocentric people who can look into your eyes with an angelic expression and tell you a lie. These are the most recruitable people – people who lack moral principles, who are either too greedy or suffer too much from self-importance. They feel that they matter a lot. These are the people who the KGB wanted very much to recruit.”
You may think, what’s new? All of this information has been dripped to the public piecemeal. Why bring it up now? The answer to that is because, if we want to rescue our country from incompetence, corruption and hostile actors, we must not allow the Russia Report to be brushed under the carpet of history. Sadly, the ISC does not appear to be following up on it, the toothless Electoral Commission has been packed with Brexiters, and legislation dealing with foreign spies is weak and outdated. Russian influence will prevail as long as this government is in power. Our best defence against it is to remember the unworthy behaviour of the political class, to remain sceptical, and to be ready to act when the time comes.