I Spent Years Imploring the Conservatives to Investigate Russian InterferenceThey Didn’t Listen
As a Labour MP investigating disinformation, Ian Lucas saw first-hand the Government’s attempts to duck the question of Russia
For me, it all started with Alexander Temerko. I was puzzled after the result of the 2015 General Election. I was still Wrexham’s Labour MP but my majority had halved when I had expected it to increase. Nationally, David Cameron’s Conservatives had won a majority when most had predicted a hung Parliament.
I looked at seats that I knew, local to me in north Wales. One was Aberconwy where the Conservatives had been defending Guto Bebb’s seat. In the House of Commons Register of Parliamentary Interests I noticed a local donation by Temerko. I had never heard of him and I had never received a donation of a similar size for any general election campaign. So, I looked more widely.
It appeared that Temerko had made donations to other Conservative MPs in Wales. I widened my search again. Temerko’s donations extended to many seats across the UK and also to Conservative central office. Such donations have continued to the present day, now amounting to comfortably more than £1 million.
Born in Soviet Ukraine, Temerko has a complex and interesting history of connections with both the Russian Government and the Conservative Party, detailed here by John Sweeney.
What was this money spent on? We don’t know for sure. The Conservatives always had more money for campaigning than Labour but I noticed in 2015 that the local campaign in Wrexham had, for the first time, been heavily influenced by Facebook.
My opponent – who had moved to Wrexham within nine months of the general election – had used Facebook extensively. I remembered a meeting that took place early in 2015 when a Facebook salesman told me how I could benefit from using the platform during the campaign. I didn’t take up his offer and, politically, it was a big mistake.
My Conservative opponent, after a brief period as a councillor in Wrexham, has now gone to Panama to run a firm specialising in social media promotion, which is quite the coincidence.
Targeted Facebook advertising is the Wild West of UK political campaigns – and this was especially the case in 2015. Spending on Facebook adverts is unlimited and broadly unregulated. Prior to 2019, we had essentially no way of knowing the content of the Facebook adverts paid for by political parties – at home or abroad.
This curiosity in social media as a political tool led me to join the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee during the 2015 Parliament and, when the 2017 General Election was called, I used Facebook to help get re-elected in a marginal seat that was targeted by the Tories.
As a member of the Committee, which produced two reports on disinformation and fake news, I helped to uncover the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the role of Facebook in digital election campaigning. Temerko continued to make donations to Conservative MPs during this time. Simon Hart, now Secretary of State for Wales, has received more than £40,000 from Temerko since 2014 according to the House of Commons Register of Interests. Ironically, Hart was also a member of the DCMS Committee.
A Brick Wall
Our fake news and disinformation inquiries explored the various ways in which Russia was attempting to influence British democracy.
I questioned Arron Banks, a major funder of the Leave.EU campaign, who admitted that he had met the Russian Ambassador on a number of occasions both before and after the Brexit vote in 2016 – confirming that he would not have met the Ambassador if it had not been for Brexit. As Banks put it himself: “I do think Ian is correct in the sense that, if we had not been involved in Brexit, we [Banks and his colleague at Leave.EU, Andy Wigmore] would obviously not have been invited for lunch.”
In 2018, the estimable Carole Cadwalladr set out more detail on this meeting.
In December 2017, then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson suggested at a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that any attempts by Russia to interference in the Brexit referendum had been unsuccessful – failing to deny that Russia had tried to sway the vote.
Our Committee wanted to know more and, in July 2018, called for an independent inquiry into overseas interference in elections and referendums in the UK since 2014, including the Brexit referendum. The Conservative Government rejected our pleas.
This was the despite the Skripal attack in Salisbury on 4 March 2018, during which a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned. Even so, the Government failed to investigate further Russian attacks – digital, in this case – on our democracy.
I continued to question ministers about overseas interference. Again and again, they stuck to Johnson’s formula – maintaining that any interference attempts had been “unsuccessful”.
When the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee produced a report on Russian interference in British politics, Johnson did everything he could to ensure that the report was not published before the 2019 General Election.
My last interview as an MP was on BBC Newsnight, calling for the report to be published so that voters would be aware of the full facts before the election.
When the report was eventually published, in July 2020, it criticised the Government for failing to investigate Russian interference further.
“The report reveals that no one in Government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum,” said Stewart Hosie, an SNP MP who sat on the Intelligence and Security Committee. “The UK Government have actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered. We were told that they hadn’t seen any evidence, but that is meaningless if they hadn’t looked for it.”
We have now learnt from the formidable work of Labour MP Chris Bryant that the Home Office stated that Chelsea Football Club owner and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich has previously paid for political influence – which makes the Government’s failure to look further still more astonishing.
It is against this backdrop that we need to view the welcome decision to sanction more Russian oligarchs this week – including Abramovich. But we must ask why past evidence was ignored by successive Conservative governments.
I left Parliament in 2019 to write Digital Gangsters – my account of discovering the malign influence of digital campaigning and foreign interference on politics.
When I was writing it, I had no idea that I would sign the first copies on the day that Roman Abramovich was sanctioned by the Government.
As I point out in the book, there are so many more questions that now need answering about the role of the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet ministers in delaying action to investigate Russia and its role in attacking our democracy. We now urgently need the inquiry called for by the DCMS Committee in July 2018.