Retiring Labour MP and Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee member Ian Lucas urges the Prime Minister to take the threat posed by Putin’s Russia seriously – and put the UK before his own personal interests.

British-born Fiona Hill’s evidence to a Congressional Committee highlighted once more the chasm that exists on the issue of Russian interference between NATO partners, the United States and the UK. Pronouncements on the General Election campaign trail this week by Prime Minister Boris Johnson appear to have widened the chasm still further.

In the US, it is universally accepted that Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election took place, that steps need to be taken to avoid that interference recurring, and that the matter is a direct threat to the republic’s democracy. In her testimony last week, Ms Hill described continuing efforts by Russia to destabilise politics in the West and attacked the suggestion that such interference ever came from Ukraine as fabrication.

In the UK, however, the Conservative Government appears determined to ignore compelling evidence on this issue. 

As Prime Minister, Theresa May did highlight concerns about interference in Western democracies. In 2017, she accused Russia of using fake news to “sow discord” in the West and “meddle” in democratic processes. However, she was always reluctant to refer specifically to interference in UK electoral processes. The Government she led settled on a formula: that it had seen no evidence of “successful interference” in UK elections. 

This formula was adopted by her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, when he went as far as challenging the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who asserted that there had been “no interference” by Russia in UK elections. Mr Johnson said: “I think it’s very important that you should recognise that Russian attempts to interfere in our elections, our referendum, whatever they may have been, have not been successful… because I think, had it been successful, that would be an entirely different matter.”

Like so much in British politics since 2016, the reason for the UK Government’s caution on calling out interference by Russia relates to Brexit.

Theresa May secured her position as Prime Minister by making clear her commitment to Brexit and, it seems, she was very conscious that any assertion of Russia interference in the EU Referendum which influenced the result might undermine its credibility. Thus, the Government she led arrived at the wording that it had seen no evidence of “successful interference”, something that – as the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee pointed out in its response to the Government on the matter – is impossible to prove.

This position was maintained throughout May’s Premiership. As recently as the summer of 2019, her Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, adopted the same formula in evidence to the Committee. 

Now, Mr Johnson is determined to reject even that position in his determination to secure a majority in the General Election. Contradicting his own stated 2017 position as Foreign Secretary, he said this week that “there’s absolutely no evidence that I’ve ever seen of any Russian interference in UK democratic processes”.

This is an extraordinary position. Evidence of interference, albeit “unsuccessful”, was conceded by the Government he served as Foreign Secretary and he himself raised the issue proactively in a press conference with the Russian Foreign Minister. Evidence of Russian interference is set out in detail in the DCMS Committee’s two reports on disinformation and fake news, published in 2018 and 2019. 

In addition, we know that Mr Johnson’s Government has prevented the publication of the Commons’ Intelligence and Security Committee’s report examining Russian interference in British political life, even though it has been cleared by the appropriate intelligence services. We do not know its content or whether the Prime Minister has even read it.

Such interference goes to the heart of our democracy.

It is treated seriously in the United States and should be seen as a new threat to security for the defence of our country. The suspicion is that our Prime Minister is ignoring such threats on the basis of political expediency – as it asks question about the legitimacy of Brexit, the central policy of his General Election campaign, and the result his Vote Leave campaign pushed Britain towards.

But, this issue is much bigger than that. It is about the defence of our realm and our democracy and any Prime Minister worthy of the office should be addressing it urgently, just as our allies in the United States are doing.


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