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Politics

Russia Report flays government inaction

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AFTER nine months of delay, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the embarrassment its content could have caused to successive Conservative Prime Ministers, the long-awaited Intelligence Services Committee report into Russian interference in the UK’s democratic processes was published on Tuesday, July 21.

The Committee delivered its report to the UK Government last autumn, well before the announcement of December’s General Election. However, the Government delayed its release indefinitely.

PUBLICATION AFTER GRAYLING FAILED AGAIN
The report’s publication on Tuesday followed an attempt by Number 10 Downing Street to rig the election of a new Chair for the Committee. Former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve QC stood down at the last election.

Last week, Number 10 attempted to parachute in a patsy to replace Dominic Grieve, former Cabinet Minister Chris Grayling, hoping to kick the report even further into the long grass. The effort failed comically when the Government’s nominee lost a rigged election. The new Chair, Julian Lewis, a Conservative MP, had the Conservative whip withdrawn from him as a result of ‘disloyalty’ to Number 10.

The attempt to thwart the report’s publication – or to neuter its already heavily redacted form – rebounded badly on Boris Johnson and draws attention to some of the report’s more uncomfortable conclusions regarding the extent of Russian infiltration into the UK’s public life.
The report is a scathing assessment of the UK Government’s continued failure to either adequately assess or even investigate how Russia, or those associated with the Putin regime, attempted to influence the UK electorate.

KEY FINDINGS
• Russian influence in the UK is the new normal. Successive Governments have welcomed the oligarchs and their money with open arms, providing them with a means of recycling illicit finance through the London ‘laundromat’, and connections at the highest levels with access to UK companies and political figures.• This has led to a growth industry of ‘enablers’ including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents who are – wittingly or unwittingly – de facto agents of the Russian state.
• It clearly demonstrates the inherent tension between the Government’s prosperity agenda and the need to protect national security. While we cannot now shut the stable door, greater powers and transparency are needed urgently.
• UK is clearly a target for Russian disinformation. While the mechanics of our paper-based voting system are largely sound, we cannot be complacent about a hostile state taking deliberate action to influence our democratic processes.
• Yet the defence of those democratic processes has appeared something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation considering itself to be in the lead, or apparently willing to conduct an assessment of such interference. This must change.
• Social media companies must take action and remove covert hostile state material: Government must ‘name and shame’ those who fail to act.
• We need other countries to step up with the UK and attach a cost to Putin’s actions. [The Russian state’s coordination of the Novichok attack in] Salisbury must not be allowed to become the high watermark in international unity over the Russia threat.
Several issues addressed in the published version of the Russia Report are covered in more depth in a Classified Annex which is unavailable for public scrutiny.

GOVERNMENT DIDN’T RECOGNISE THREAT
A statement by the Committee said: “There have been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: studies have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence.

“The actual impact of such attempts on the result itself would be difficult – if not impossible – to prove. However what is clear is that the Government was slow to recognise the existence of the threat – only understanding it after the ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee, when it should have been seen as early as 2014 (when Russia attempted to interfere in the Scottish Independence Referendum). As a result, the Government did not take action to protect the UK’s process in 2016.”

“The Committee has not been provided with any post-referendum assessment – in stark contrast to the US response to reports of interference in the 2016 presidential election. In our view, there must be an analogous assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum.”

In a press conference following the report’s publication, Chair of the Intelligence Services Committee, Julian Lewis recused himself from commenting on the report. He told media as he was not a member of the committee when it drew up the report, he would leave answers on its contents to two MPs who were members of it at the relevant time.

NO EFFORT TO INVESTIGATE
Members of the Intelligence Select Committee (ISC) said there was ‘no evidence’ that Russia sought to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum, but only because the government did not try to find out if it had.

One member, Stewart Hosie MP (SNP) said: “There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.

“The UK Government has actively avoided seeking evidence as to whether Russia interfered.”

The report notes: “For example, it was widely reported shortly after the Scottish referendum that Russian election observers had suggested that there were irregularities in the conduct of the vote, and this position was widely pushed by Russian state media.

“We understand that HMG viewed this as being primarily aimed at discrediting the UK in the eyes of a domestic Russian audience.”
Russian propaganda was widely shared and effective in Scotland.

Over 87,000 people signed a petition demanding a re-vote following the Russian allegations of electoral fraud.

Kevan Jones, a former Labour defence minister, said all the evidence of Russian interference was there from the Scottish referendum
He said: “Short of a large van outside Downing Street, with a billboard on it saying, ’this is what was going on’, what more did the government need? Why was the decision taken not to look at the (Brexit) referendum?”

He said the Government lied about why Russia report couldn’t be published before the election.

Commenting on the report the Shadow Home Secretary, Kit Thomas-Symonds, said: “The report outlines a litany of hostile state activity, from cyber warfare, interfering in democratic processes, acts of violence on UK soil and illicit finance. On every level, the government’s response does not appear to be equal to the threat. While on key issues it is clear that there is no overall strategic response to this challenge – little wonder the government has been so keen to delay the publication.”

MONEY TALKS REALITY BITES
The Committee’s reports and its members’ comments leave little doubt that Theresa May actively declined to start an investigation into allegations of foreign interference in the 2016 Referendum campaign.

In a section about the referendum, the report says: “The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG [Her Majesty’s government] had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results.”

While any number of conspiracy theories swirl about her failure to at least ask GCHQ, MI6 or MI5 to look into the allegations, it is entirely likely that Mrs May’s decision was based in cold, hard realpolitik.

If an investigation had uncovered evidence of Russian interference, the consequences for the UK potentially outweighed any effect the interference had on the Referendum’s outcome.

Brexit hardliners within her party and fringe figures such as Nigel Farage would never have accepted any finding which undermined the legitimacy of the Referendum result. The result could have been political chaos and – quite possibly – civil disruption.

An investigation would also have provided an impetus for defeated Remain campaigners to challenge the result through the Courts.
The scope for revelations about prominent Conservative figures’ connection with Russia and Russian money might have caused severe embarrassment at a time the Government was trying to set the Brexit agenda.

For example, Alexander Termerko is a former senior apparatchik in the Russian Ministry of Defence. He is among the Conservative’s largest donors (£1.3m over seven years). Born in Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union, Mr Termerko rose to prominence during the Yeltsin era. He became involved in manufacturing arms and an oil tycoon under Vladimir Putin. He fled to the UK when threatened with a politically-motivated prosecution. Mr Termerko has donated generously to several Conservative MPs, including Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MP Simon Hart.

None of the above excuses the failure to investigate but, as one possible reading of events, it offers a compelling rationale for Mrs May’s and Mr Johnson’s reluctance to look too deeply into any foreign interference in the Brexit Referendum.

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Politics

Sooner or later the Conservative Party must talk about poverty

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FROM David Cameron’s focus on life-chances to Theresa May’s burning injustices and now Boris’s vision for levelling up, building a fairer society has been a central theme for my party over the past decade.

But, as last week’s row over free school meals illustrated, we are not always comfortable speaking in direct terms about poverty and hardship.
Some Conservatives prefer the aspirational language of opportunity and social mobility; others choose broader phrases such as social justice or the banner of One Nation. There is a lot of overlap of course.

But when it comes to discussing the problem of families not having enough money to get by, we sometimes struggle to find the vocabulary. Language matters and if we can’t find the words, we probably won’t find the solutions.

The UK has yet to feel the full force of the economic storm that Covid-19 has unleashed but there are already signs it will cause lasting damage to vulnerable communities, undoing much of the progress achieved in cutting unemployment over the past decade.

The speed and scale of the government’s intervention to protect workers during the lockdown has been unprecedented. But paying the wages of nine million people is not sustainable. As the furlough scheme begins to unwind, unemployment will rise with potentially millions of people losing jobs – pulled into poverty through no fault of their own.

Many have already been forced to turn to the benefits system. The most recent figures show a staggering 2.3 million new universal credit claimants. This will grow further.

The system itself has handled the increased caseload remarkably well. But many families will find the change from the emergency parachute of furlough to the longer-term safety net of universal credit a very hard landing indeed.

Worryingly, areas that were already struggling before the pandemic, such as ex-industrial and coastal towns, are likely to be the places hardest hit. These are the very communities at the heart of the levelling-up vision. But the full gains from increasing investment in poorer regions won’t be seen for years. It is not the answer to the question of how we support those families being pushed into poverty right now.

Even before the virus struck there were signs that too many families were struggling to make ends meet, including large numbers of working families also living in poverty.

Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that nearly two-thirds of families on universal credit have been forced to borrow money since the start of this crisis. As the economic fallout from coronavirus grows, many families will be plunged deeper into debt. In April the government increased the universal credit standard allowance by £20 a week, recognising the extra pressures millions are now facing.

But to prevent further hardship, as more people fall out of work and for longer periods, there is a case for strengthening our system of social security. The political choices of the past decade that saw working-age benefits squeezed while the state pension was boosted by the triple lock are not the ones for this new period we are entering.

So, what steps can we take? Firstly, we could implement the recommendation of the work and pensions committee this week and uprate the legacy benefits.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is also calling for a temporary increase of £20 per week in the child element of universal credit and child tax credits to prevent families being pulled further into poverty. Compared with the eye-watering costs of the furlough scheme, this measure could represent a reasonable price to pay to hold families steady during this crisis.

As the government turns its attention to a growth strategy to fire up the economy, with a focus on jobs, apprenticeships and infrastructure, we should not forget our mission to support families facing hardship at this time.

This would reflect the best of all Conservative traditions.

This article was first published in The Times on Thursday, June 25 and is reproduced by kind permission of Stephen Crabb MP

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Politics

Brexit: not the least surprised

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IF it was a tiger that went in the tank, as enthusiastically advocated by Prime Minister Johnson, it was a paper tiger. And all that does is clog up the filters and prevent the engine running. Furthermore, cleaning out the debris is a difficult and expensive job.

But that’s always the same with Johnson. He bounces onto the stage, utters some singularly inappropriate phrases, prattles incoherently for a while and then buggers off to let everyone else – anyone else – sort out the details that he can’t be bothered with (which is all of them).

And so it has come to pass that those “future relationship” talks, even with the “tiger in their tank”, have got absolutely nowhere and have broken up early over “serious” disagreements, with Michel Barnier complaining of “lack of respect and engagement by the UK”.

“Our goal was to get negotiations successfully and quickly on a trajectory to reach an agreement”, Barnier said in a statement. “However, after four days of discussions, serious divergences remain”.

That, of course, comes as absolutely no surprise. If there is any surprise to be had, it’s that the talks lasted as long as four days. There have never been any indications that Johnson has been serious about these talks, so the likelihood was always that they were going to break up in disarray.

NO NEW PROPOSALS FROM UK
Barnier says that Brussels had “listened carefully” to Johnson when he did his “thing” about tigers, and made vacuous noises about wanting a “political agreement” over the summer. And now that the talks have broken down, the recriminations flow, to the point where not much sense can be made of them.

We learn from Barnier, for instance, that the EU has recognised British “red lines”. These include the role of the ECJ, the refusal to be bound by EU law, and a fisheries agreement that recognises the UK’s sovereignty. It has thus hinted at several concessions, across the board.
This is matched by a complaint that the EU’s willingness to be flexible on its initial demands in light of the British positions had not been met with similar understanding from Downing Street over Brussels’ red lines. Downing Street needed to “reciprocate with new proposals”, the EU says.

David Frost, on the other hand, seems to be in the market for extruded verbal material, saying virtually nothing at some length. His big thing is that the British side still wants “an early understanding of the principles underlying an agreement”, which he hopes can be secured by the end of July.

SHIFTING THE BLAME
Oddly enough, the normally astute Denis Staunton for the Irish Times seems to think that the abrupt end to these talks was “not only surprising but perplexing”.

Perplexing it may be – nothing to do with Johnson is ever straightforward – but surprising it never was. The writing has been on the wall so long it is starting to fade.

Staunton, however, takes some comfort from “the language on both sides”. He says it was “restrained” and Frost’s had none of the belligerence that often characterises his rhetoric towards Brussels.

The fact that Barnier chose not to give a press conference, he says, was seen by some as another happy augury but Staunton says it wasn’t. Simply, he was deferring to Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen, who gave a joint press conference later.

However, Barnier is also said to have accused British trade negotiators of “a lack of respect” and when von der Leyen and the German Chancellor got going, Merkel warned the EU Member States that they needed to be prepared for a no-deal TransEnd.

Why the tone of the two parties should thus give rise to such optimism isn’t immediately apparent. At this stage, with little to be gained either way – with only a very limited trade deal on the stocks, one of the greater concerns must be to establish a firm base for blame avoidance.

Barnier, in particular, will want to tell his domestic audience that the EU has gone the extra mile, not least because it then clears the way for the EU to do what it always does – screw the Brits.

A WEAK, UNLOVELY THING
Team Johnson, from the look of it, is away with the fairies anyway. And with Frost apparently trotting off to a new job at the end of the month (or not), he has good reasons for not starting a spat that he can’t finish.

But what makes this more than a little bit redundant – and so utterly tedious – is that we’re almost down to the level of two bald men fighting over a comb. Any deal done – if there is one done – must be measured not by what it includes but what is left out. So very little can be agreed in the time that anything delivered will be a weak, unlovely thing.

But the real giveaway is that the UK has yet to set out plans for how it wants an agreement to work, on areas as diverse its own state aid regime, to a fully functioning fishing policy.

Throughout the entire Brexit period the UK stance has been to let the EU make the running, and then knock down what it offers. There is only so much of that one can take before even the most patient of negotiators begins to feel they are being taken for mugs.

JOHNSON GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS
Yet, on fishing, in particular, Barnier is saying that there needs to be a “sustainable and long-term solution” on fisheries, taking into account the needs of European fishermen for certainty over their livelihoods. An effective all-encompassing dispute settlement mechanism is also necessary, to ensure both sides stick to their obligations.

Here, the issue is – as it is elsewhere – that the British government doesn’t have the first idea of how to manage a modern fishery. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has given way to Defra, which doesn’t even have “fisheries” in its title. Any expertise there was in the department has long gone.

Something about which we haven’t been hearing much of late is also of importance – governance. A little while back, this was of some importance, with the EU wanting a single, over-arching agreement, with standard rules and institutions, and a common dispute procedure.
Now we don’t seem to hear so much of this, but that doesn’t mean it is no longer important. Most likely, Barnier has given up on trying to get any sense out of Team Johnson and is just going through the motions.

THE EU CAN WAIT
The thing for sure here is that he doesn’t need to throw his toys out of the pram. All he has to do is wait until after December 31, and watch the Brits having hissy-fits when they discover what being outside the internal market really means.

In time – and perhaps when there is a different administration – Barnier (or his successor) can come back and we can all start talking again. Then perhaps the UK will have people who are prepared to behave like adults and look anew at what sort of relationship we need with our closest neighbours.

Until then, we are going to see a lot of this sort of ritual dance. It may die down during the holiday period and pick up the tempo as the autumn turns to winter. And there may be a last flurry of activity in the dying days of December, although that will be for show. Any agreement has to be ratified, so a last-minute deal is not on the cards.

Meanwhile, there will be more talks next week. These will be in London, another session of face-to-face meetings. I don’t expect we’ll get much more out of them than we did this week. If we do, then that really will be a surprise.

This article is reproduced by kind permission of Dr Richard North from his blog http://eureferendum.com/.

Dr Richard North is a veteran supported of Britain’s exit from the EU and co-author, with Christopher Booker, of ‘The Great Deception: The Definitive History of the EU’ and before that co-author of two other books on EU-related matters.

He was group research director of the EDD group in the European Parliament and has written numerous pamphlets and articles on EU matters.

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Politics

Slave trade links will be reviewed

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MARK DRAKEFORD has ordered an urgent audit of statues, street and building names to address Wales’ connections with the slave trade.
The First Minister’s announcement follows a month of action by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has shone a light on racial inequalities around the world.

The audit, which will span the length and breadth of the country, will be spearheaded by Gaynor Legall, a powerful advocate for ethnic minority women across Wales.

Cardiff-born Legall will lead the task and finish group selected for their expert knowledge of the slave trade, British Empire and history of black communities in Wales.

The First Minister said: “The Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the fore many important issues we need to address as a country. One is the need for Wales to reflect on the visible reminders of the country’s past. This is especially true when we look at the horrors of the slave trade.
“Some of our historic buildings are reminders of this painful period of our history. Some may appear to make heroes of historical figures whose actions we now condemn. Individuals connected to the slave trade may be remembered in street names or the names of public buildings.

“They are commemorations of a past that we have not fully challenged and that we should challenge now.”

Mark Drakeford continued: “This is not about rewriting the past – it is about reflecting it with the justice it deserves. If done in the right way, we can create a richer and more informed relationship with our history. We can find new stories and figures to celebrate. We can reflect a Wales that rightfully celebrates our diverse communities. This is what our past deserves and our present so rightfully demands.”

He concluded: “An external group of young people and communities will be consulted about the findings before we plan how best to move forward together. Additionally, the Minister for Education will shortly announce further details of a working group to oversee the development of learning resources and identify gaps in current resources or training related to BAME communities, their contributions and experiences. This work is aligned to the Estyn review of Welsh history, which will take full account of Welsh, and wider, BAME history, identity and culture.”

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