Theresa May does not, as Tony Blair once put it, have bandwidth for anything except Brexit. If she talks about something else, it is to smooth the way for Brexit. She has just been in Saudi Arabia, selling the Saudis weapons with which to kill the Yemenis so she can pay for Brexit.
So why, I wondered, had she devoted her entire speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet to Russian interference with western democracy? It was as if she was expecting something to happen. I noticed that she hadn’t mentioned Britain. But of course she couldn’t: that would be to acknowledge that Russia might have had its fingers in the referendum, which would suggest that the referendum ought to be re-run.
A few days later a friend sent me a link to a piece by Louise Mensch on the Patribotics website (https://patribotics.blog/2017/11/24/exclusive-brexit-referendum-may-need-to-be-redone/). It claimed that “sources say that UK intelligence is minded to recommend to Theresa May’s government that the Brexit vote be redone.”
What sources, I immediately wanted to know, but Louise Mensch was not going to tell me. It’s an exasperating piece, crucially vague. Ms Mensch has been having a nasty spat with the Guardian, which accused her of making things up. She rebutted this angrily. A former Tory MP, living in New York, once a chicklit author and now working for Rupert Murdoch (yes), writing about the alleged corruption of the UK’s political system by Russia… one wonders where she’s coming from.
But I can’t dismiss the piece, not only because it has become impossible to ignore the evidence that the UK’s political system has been corrupted, but because, reading around it, I came across some disturbing things.
Mensch claims that, according to her unnamed sources, “the level of money and the reach of the fake bots and targeted data funded by Russia, using Cambridge Analytica, were so great that M15 and M16…did not believe that the Brexit referendum could be said to have been ‘free and fair.’”
The article continues: “Sources cautioned, however, that an absolute decision had not yet been made and that the Prime Minister and her government opposed a revote. Reasons for this included both the public reaction, and the fact that it is thought that any second vote is likely to have the same final result as the first one.”
That’s the authentic voice of Whitehall. But how about this?
“Sources with links to both UK and US intelligence also believed, however, that there was major anxiety within the British government… of politicians’ links to the Russian state being exposed.”
Which politicians? Links of what kind? This is not about going to a party at the Russian embassy and drinking too much vodka.
Mensch then fingers other political players who are said to have been recipients of Russian generosity – the SNP, Labour, UKIP (she has nowhere explicitly mentioned the Tories) – before dropping her reader from a great height with: “Sources speculated… that any re-do of a corrupted Brexit vote might be announced after the arrest of Nigel Farage, which, separate sources assert, is a certainty.”
Let’s not rejoice prematurely.
Russian interference in the American presidential election is now beyond dispute. Because of the close links between the Leave campaigns and the Trump campaign, and Putin’s evident interest in a British exit from the EU, questions about Russia’s involvement in the EU referendum have been getting louder in recent weeks.
Boris Johnson had a fit of absence of mind when asked whether he had seen any evidence of Russian interference in British politics but eventually managed, “I haven’t seen a sausage.” This provoked incredulity from Chris Bryant, MP, vice chair of the all-party parliamentary Russia group, who used the words “distinctly fishy” and said, “Even as a junior minister in the foreign office, Russian stuff came across my desk every day.”
Boris was feeling the heat at the time because he had on 19 October attended a Brexit fundraising dinner at which he had met, and been photographed with, a Mr Mifsud who is named in an FBI investigation as a high-level go-between linking the Trump campaign and the Russian government (Guardian 11 November). Ben Bradshaw, MP, expressed amazement that British intelligence, who must have been told by the FBI about Mifsud, allowed this accident to happen.
The only way he could explain it was that “Our own agencies are keeping information from Johnson for some reason… which only begs further worrying questions.”
It’s an extraordinary suggestion. It suggests a distance between the intelligence community and government, and – worse – distrust. And it takes us back to Louise Mensch’s reference to “politicians’ links to the Russian state.” We already know that, for instance, Matthew Elliott, founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance and chief executive of Boris’s Vote Leave campaign, and now reportedly being lined up for a senior role at the head of the Conservative party, was a member of Conservative Friends of Russia, “a Moscow influence organisation” (Carole Cadwalladr, Guardian, 4 November). Is Boris one of these politicians? If May thinks he is, she is likely to be not just worried but pacing the floor.
But then, I began to realise, if there’s Russian influence it doesn’t stop at Boris.
How strong does a link have to be, to be significant? In many cases we’ll never know what links exist. They will be scrambled, covered over, sent on baffling detours. But here’s one link that certainly ought to be pursued, because it’s in full public view and it’s operating at the highest level. It’s the link between the Government and something called the Legatum Institute, “a handsomely-funded extreme free-market think-tank fuelled by offshore cash from the Caribbean and Dubai,” behind which “stand the Chandler brothers, who made their billions in Russia’s most turbulent years, and once owned 4% of Gazprom” (Gina Miller in the Guardian, 28 November).
The Legatum Institute has emerged from nowhere and is deferentially mentioned on the BBC as an adviser on Government policy, without any explanation of what qualifications it has for that role. Michael Gove attended a seminar held by Legatum’s director of economics, Shanker Singham, ten days ago, alongside people from Downing Street.
I’m not suggesting that Legatum is a Russian front. The Mail is, though. An eye-widening article in the Sunday Mail online (25 November) was headlined: “Putin’s link to Boris and Gove’s Brexit ‘coup’ revealed,” and alleged that Shanker Singham was involved in drawing up the “ultimatum” letter sent to Theresa May about Brexit.
I have long wondered who is pulling Theresa May’s strings. I should have realised that, in a matter like this, the closer one gets to the answer the more the answer recedes.
Money is everywhere in this story. Follow the money and names come up. Follow the names and you fall over more money. The money in Legatum. (The Chandler brothers are disaster capitalists. Why are they interested in the UK?) The “dark” money behind Arron Banks’ s funding of Leave.EU. The £485,000 given by the opaque Constitutional Research Council to the DUP during the referendum campaign (no disclosure about donor required because different standards apply to Northern Ireland). The £625,000 Vote Leave gave to a 23-year-old student for his pro-Brexit campaign. The money which swashes around London.
“London is one of the main outposts for Russian financial and political influence programmes in the west,” said Bill Browder, Anglo-American businessman and campaigner for the Magnitsky Act. “There’s a huge reluctance to strangle the golden goose. Because a lot of people close to the centre of power are financially benefiting.” (Cadwalladr, Guardian, 4 November.)
How close to the centre of power?
“The big question now,” Gina Miller writes, “is to what extent Russian money came into the Leave campaigns, and is in effect funding a cold war.”
A UK parliamentary committee has asked Mark Zuckerberg to supply any information he has on activity by Russian-linked Facebook accounts during the referendum campaign. The Internet Research Agency, a Russian state-backed “troll farm” operating out of St Petersburg, is said to have targeted Facebook users in the USA before the presidential election; Facebook has promised to create a tool that will allow users to see whether they were targeted. However, about the UK, Facebook has said nothing.
Ben Nimmo, of the Atlantic Council think-tank, said evidence of Russian online interference in the referendum was “incontrovertible” (Cadwalladr, Guardian, 4 November). In the campaign, Vote Leave and Leave.EU spent lavishly on, respectively, AggregateIQ, based in Canada, and Cambridge Analytica, set up by an American billionaire and with links (illegal) to AggregateIQ: these were companies that scooped up Facebook users’ personal data, analysed it and sent tailored messages to them (see my blog of 26 May, Say you like it). Mensch says that Russia funded Leave.EU’s use of Cambridge Analytica; I’m not aware of the evidence, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
We already know quite a lot about Russian-linked fake Twitter accounts. They posted almost 45,000 messages about Brexit in the 48 hours around the referendum. Research by Swansea University and the University of California tracked 156,252 Russian Twitter accounts that mentioned Brexit; most although not all were pro-Leave. Many appear to have come from the troll farms.
What is Britain doing about all this? There’s the request to Mark Zuckerberg. There are demands for the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee to investigate. The Electoral Commission is examining the possibility of breaches of the electoral rules by Vote Leave and Leave.EU (“I’m terrified,” said Arron Banks). The Intelligence and Security Committee is only now about to be re-constituted after the general election (why has it taken so long?) At the request of Tom Brake, MP, there will be a three-hour Commons debate on Russian interference on 21 December.
Across the Atlantic, there are five separate FBI investigations under way into Russian involvement in the Trump campaign, and Americans talk openly about impeachment. Here, the Prime Minister has still not used the words “Russia” and “Brexit” in the same sentence, and is presumably behind the timetabling of a debate on the subject three days before Christmas, when, with luck, ten MPs will be present.
Smiley must rap on the door of No. 10. No-one else can do it.
But Smiley needs our help. We have to shout, loud enough to rattle the panes in that decaying building on the Thames. Loud enough to put this corrupted government to flight and replace it with something cleaner.