43. Playing Russian Roulette with the Nation’s Future

Peter Burke,
Chair,
Oxford For Europe

25 July 2020

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‘It has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what. Overall, the issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead.’

– The Russia Report

Recently Oxford for Europe played host to Dominic Grieve and Michael Dougan. In these strange times, sadly it had to happen via Zoom. Both had much wisdom to impart. On the day 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?

Bill Browder on bottom left

As Bill Browder, the author of the Magnitsky Act, made clear in a recent broadcast chaired by Carole Cadwalladr, 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 Brexiteers 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 ground for delayed publication. He had the opportunity to appoint 5 of the 9 ISC members, and chose in all cases people he considered to be loyal Brexiteers. 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 4 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.

The ISC press conference, with the new chair, Dr Julian Lewis (ex-Tory, centre), and the 2 members carried forward from the previous committee, Stewart Hosie (SNP, left) and Kevan Jones (Labour, right)

In the event the decision to publish 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 Brexiteers, 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 cockups 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, an non-Tory majority. Perhaps that at least will ensure that it continues to do its job effectively.

With all the focus on the Russia report, perhaps the government felt it was able to sneak through its Trade Bill with less scrutiny than it would otherwise have had. This has now successfully completed all its Commons stages. Its effect is to allow this government and its successors to agree trade deals with other countries without the inconvenience of parliamentary scrutiny (is that what was meant by ‘taking back control’?). Even worse, the contents of such deals do not need to be made public for five years. This may mean we will have to rely on the US Congress to tell British voters what their own government has negotiated on their behalf. All opposition amendments to this bill were soundly defeated, and, to their deep discredit, all four Oxfordshire Tory MPs voted with the government at every opportunity. I very much hope that voters will tell them what they think of this spineless collusion in the act of disenfranchising themselves and thereby their constituents.

For those who say we should not be challenging this government’s actions on the grounds that Brexit is the people’s will and has now happened, let me say 3 things:

Firstly, to the many arguments against the validity of the non-binding referendum of 2016, we must now add the serious doubts amplified by the Russia report as to whether indeed meddling by a foreign power compromised the result. And as for the 2019 election, it was more a vote to stymie Corbyn than a mandate for Johnson/Cummings to do as they wished.

Secondly, even if we accept the belief that the referendum bound the Government to leave the European Union, this has now happened, “what the people voted for” has been delivered, and no further action is required to deliver it (as pointed out by Chris Grey in his superb blog). Even if the UK had chosen to remain in the Single Market and European Customs Union indefinitely, or even to rejoin the EU, this would not be going against the referendum mandate, as that covers only the act of leaving the EU, not remaining outside. In other words, a rational government, having delivered on its promises, would now make a hard headed evaluation of the current position – which is after all in so many ways (not just in relation to Covid) different from that of 2016 – and act in the best interests of the country, whatever that might mean.

Thirdly, there is daily accumulating evidence of the harms of Brexit.  The government has embarked on a massive propaganda campaign (‘The UK’s New Start: Let’s Get Going’) to “prepare” the country for a no deal Brexit. When people choose to look at the details of this, it contains no evidence of any benefits, just more hard work, more bureaucracy, more barriers to business and travel, and a need for 50,000 more Customs officials, few if any of whom will be in post in time (that is substantially more than the total number of officials, the “unelected bureaucrats” employed by the EU). The cost to business of the added bureaucracy alone will greatly exceed any contributions UK ever made to EU coffers. The American Trade Deal, if it happens, will tie our hands in dealing with our EU partners, yet it will benefit the economy hardly at all. Predictions are that a Free Trade Agreement will enhance our GDP by 0.16% – as compared with a 10% drop (ie £200 bn + per annum) as a direct consequence of a no-deal outcome on 1st January.

David Frost, our chief negotiator, has achieved virtually nothing so far, and that appears to be what he was employed to do, given that he is being rewarded with a new job from 1 October. He will then be expected to combine responsibility for security with his negotiating role – a fact which reflects the low priority this government has chosen to accord both roles. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the government’s default aim is a no-deal Brexit.

Sir David Frost

And as it happens that same date, 1 October, has very special significance. It is the date on which the furlough scheme, on which so many people depend for their livelihood, is to end. It is also the date on which Michel Barnier expects negotiations over a trade deal to be completed, as any deal, if there is one,  has to be ratified by all 27 member states and the European Parliament. It may well be at about the same time that we will see a further wave of Covid. It is also about this time that Parliament returns from the recess which has just started. When that happens, we can only ask: what kind of a world will MPs be returning to?

With all the doom and gloom in the air, I’m sometimes asked why we bother to carry on fighting. In a word, we have to. It may be that we have lost some of today’s battles, but if we lose them without a struggle we are bound to embolden our enemies and make it easier for them to win tomorrow’s. I would like to end by quoting our speakers at the Oxford for Europe meeting:  

“The only way things really become unsalvageable is if people like us stop trying to salvage them “

Prof. Michael Dougan.

The tide of history is on our side about this… Those of us who want good for our country’s future and want our children to prosper should not give up. Our forebears have been through similar periods in UK history and we’ve come through it, and I am convinced that we will come through this as well, and we will look back on this in 50 years’ time and think ‘what an extraordinary episode when the UK took leave of its senses’”.

Dominic Grieve

[The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oxford For Europe]

Quote of the week:

‘Brexit must happen so that the UK parliament can take back control from the EU of something over which it did in fact have control but had foregone the right to exercise, but since it had done so then now it has taken back control that foregone right should continue to be denied parliament because it would have no fewer rights than if Brexit hadn’t happened in the first place.’ That sentence really needs to be read in a ‘Sir Humphrey Appleby’ voice to get its full effect.

Chris Grey

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