Why did they let it happen? Putin’s agents and our guardians

Photo of matryoshka dolls in the style of Kazimir Malevich – born Kyiv 1879. Copyright the author

Many of us are watching the disintegration of democracy and the UK’s reputation for trustworthiness and integrity and (naively) wondering when the rule of law, standards of conduct will reassert themselves. Surely someone, some authority will step in and stop the canker from spreading? Andrew Levi tells it like it (unfortunately) is…

It won’t take you long, browsing through social media, to find cries of “why did they let it happen?”

“It” being what looks to many like subversion of the United Kingdom’s government by Putin’s agents. “They” being the security services.

The answer couldn’t be more straightforward. There are five such services. They all answer to the government.

They are:

  • The Security Service (MI5). Overseen by the Home Secretary.
  • The Secret Intelligence Service, SIS (MI6). Overseen by the Foreign Secretary.
  • The Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ (the government’s “eavesdropping agency”). Also overseen by the Foreign Secretary.
  • Defence Intelligence, DI (previously known as the Defence Intelligence Staff). Overseen by the Defence Secretary.
  • The Metropolitan Police / SO15 (incorporating what used to be called “Special Branch”). Overseen by the Home Secretary.

And by whom are those cabinet ministers themselves overseen? The Prime Minister.

The Joint Intelligence Committee, JIC (supported by the Joint Intelligence Organisation, JIO), on which chiefs of the intelligence services are represented, plays a central role.

The JIC’s Chair answers to the Cabinet Secretary, the UK’s most senior civil servant. The Cabinet Secretary answers to … the Prime Minister.

Then there’s the National Security Secretariat, NSC, headed by the National Security Advisor, who answers to … well, you get the idea.

And the Homeland Security Group, part of the Home Office, obviously overseen by … yes, good guess.

Importantly, there is also Parliament’s Intelligence & Security Committee, ISC.

It is set up under statute – the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Justice & Security Act 2013 – unlike other parliamentary committees. 

It meets in secret.

It is answerable, within the constraints of the laws under which it is established, jointly to the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Putin, May, Johnson, Williamson and Rees-Mogg. Creator unknown. Source: Twitter

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Since antiquity, “who will guard the guards themselves?” has been a question of fundamental importance.

Under normal circumstances we would ask whether and how our political representatives are able to exercise effective, democratic control over those entrusted with guarding our security.

It is a sign of dramatic, disturbing developments in recent years that some now turn the question on its head.

In the United Kingdom, Acts of Parliament provide the legal frameworks for the security services and, as mentioned, the ISC. 

These both legally empower and constrain ministers, officials and parliamentarians. Their actions can be subject to judicial review.

But, even taking the view, as I do, that all officials concerned can reasonably be assumed to be of great integrity, ultimately:

  • they must, within the law, do what ministers decide;
  • the decision on what to do about serious threats to national security rests with the Cabinet and the Prime Minister, whatever the JIC or others advise.

Is there, then, a set of indisputable legal requirements to which officials could refer and on which they could insist, if faced by ministers or a prime minister refusing to protect the country against a clear threat – of attack or subversion, say?

In short, no.

It’s the Prime Minister, Stupid

Corrupt or subverted (or stupid) ministers cannot be stopped by officials.

They can be stopped by the Prime Minister.

Clearly, the top prize for any adversary of the United Kingdom would be to corrupt and subvert the Prime Minister.

What about the Law Officers, the Attorney General, say?

Their job is to ensure the government acts legally.

But if they’re subverted or corrupted (or weak or stupid), or appointed by a subverted, corrupted (or stupid) Prime Minister, good luck with that.

More widely, as fans of Yes Prime Minister will recall, within government only the Cabinet can stop a Prime Minister. “Supposing I were to go off my rocker?” says Jim Hacker. “I think the Cabinet might notice”, Sir Humphrey replies.

Which brings us to the ISC. They are a key parliamentary guardian of our security. Can they save us? 


They have no executive or legislative power. They can and do oversee the work of the intelligence agencies. Within limitations, they investigate and publish findings.

Russia report, anyone?

The Prime Minister and Cabinet set the priorities and requirements for the security services.

It is possible for those priorities and requirements to be wrongly skewed. In good faith. Or bad.

The country depends on the Prime Minister and the Cabinet acting in good faith. Taking proper advice. And not getting it wrong.

Can Someone Else Please Save Us?

Surely Her Majesty The Queen can intervene?


She must act on the Prime Minister’s advice.

Walter Bagehot famously ascribed to the Sovereign the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.

No help, I’m afraid.

Couldn’t intelligence and security officials just leak any incriminating information?


But they would almost certainly be breaking the Official Secrets Act, with serious personal consequences. So it is a very high bar. Also, leak to whom? Most of the press will not listen. They are more likely to attack the leaker.

Whistleblowing rules and procedures offer some opportunity for revelation of alleged wrongdoing, without illegal leaking. But again, it is a high bar for the whistleblower, and the outcome uncertain.

And, of course, with the Sue Gray report we have all seen both the possibilities and apparent limitations of internal investigations into the Prime Minister.

The Truth

To sum up:

  • unless the Prime Minister and Cabinet are of the highest integrity and quality, there is little defence against corruption and subversion of the entire system of government;
  • under such circumstances the best officials and best intelligence cannot do anything about it;
  • Parliament can do something about it. But the ISC is only a (very unusual) committee and is constrained.

If a majority of MPs is prepared to support, or turn a blind eye to, a corrupted, subverted Cabinet, it is game over.

You think it’s safe to wait for a General Election? Don’t be so sure.