The Lone Voices Who Tried to WarnThe British Establishment About Russia
A small band of politicians spent the past decade warning about the threat from Putin-linked Russian oligarchs in the UK but are only just now being listened to, reports Adam Bienkov
“I think too many of our political elites have been seduced, suborned and captured by Russian influence operations”, says Labour MP Liam Byrne.
Byrne is one of a small number of British politicians who have led the way in warning about the threat of growing Russian money and influence in the UK.
Their warnings, often delivered under the protection of parliamentary privilege, so as to avoid legal action from Russia’s UK-based oligarchs, have largely been ignored.
Routinely dismissed as conspiracy theorists or bitter Remainers, MPs like Byrne, his fellow Labour MPs Ben Bradshaw and Chris Bryant, and the Green MP Caroline Lucas, have sometimes been quite literally shouted down when seeking to raise the issue.
Even after Russia annexed Crimea and staged a chemical attack on British soil, their warnings went largely unheeded by the British establishment.
Instead, the Conservative Party continued to increase its funding from individuals linked to the Kremlin, while increasing the number of so-called “golden visas” handed out to Russian oligarchs in the UK.
Boris Johnson has been the biggest enabler of oligarchy power in British politicsLiam Byrne MP
It’s only now, after Putin’s forces have swept into another European nation, that this small band of opposition voices are finally starting to be heard.
“I think we all feel that it is a tragedy that it has taken a war for us to take on Londongrad”, Byrne tells Byline Times.
“But, you know, we can now see that Londongrad is falling, but we are determined to push as hard as we can to make sure it is toppled.”
Byrne’s colleague Labour MP Ben Bradshaw was among the first British politicians to raise questions about possible Russian interference in the UK’s democratic processes.
“I was the first MP, in December 2016, to raise in Parliament the issue of possible criminal interference in the Brexit referendum”, Bradshaw tells Byline Times.
Bradshaw says that at the time he had no direct evidence that there had been any such interference.
However, he believed it was a credible threat, given the evidence of Moscow’s attempts to interfere in other Western elections and referenda.
“It was clear by then that Putin had interfered in in the US presidential election and in the French presidential elections, and in several other European elections in 2015 and 2016”, Bradshaw says.
“And so I didn’t really ask that question from any position of knowledge, but just a position of logic.
“Putin had made absolutely clear that, that dividing Europe was in his game plan and that he thought Brexit was a very good thing. And if he had interfered, as we know he had in these other elections, then why on earth wouldn’t he interfere in the Brexit referendum too?”
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At the time Theresa May’s Government were keen to dismiss such concerns, saying they saw “no evidence” of Russian attempts to interfere in the UK. Later Johnson himself would dismiss similar questions as “complete Bermuda Triangle stuff”.
However, in reality, it later emerged that the reason no such evidence had been found is that the Government had deliberately chosen not to look for it.
Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s long-delayed report into Russian interference, which Johnson suppressed from publication prior to the 2019 General Election, revealed that the intelligence agencies were never tasked with looking for Russian interference.
“No one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum because they did not want to know”, SNP MP Stewart Hosie, who sat on the cross-party committee, said at the time.
“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.”
Despite this apparent neglect from ministers, Bradshaw believes the intelligence services were aware of the problem.
“After I first started asking questions about the referendum, I was contacted by a number of people close to our intelligence services, who were very worried that the Government was ignoring this”, Bradshaw says.
Other evidence supports this. Last weekend the Sunday Times revealed that MI6 had first raised concerns about the media mogul and son of a Russian oligarch and former KGB agent, Evgeny Lebedev back in 2010.
As the journalist John Sweeney first revealed for Byline Times, both MI5 and MI6 also raised similar concerns again ten years later when Johnson sought to place Lebedev in the House of Lords.
On both occasions, the security service’s concerns were either ignored or deliberately suppressed, by Johnson or his advisors. Asked by Byline Times this week whether Johnson had ever been warned to disassociate from Lebedev, Johnson’s spokesman refused to answer, saying that “I can’t get into advice received in terms of security advice”.
Johnson is probably the politician with the most to answer about Britain’s complicity with Kremlin-linked wealth in the UK.
As London mayor he was proudly pro-oligarch, using one speech to the CBI in 2012 to actively call on them to come to the UK and take advantage of our legal system. A year later in 2013, he wrote a piece for the Daily Telegraph in which he described oligarchs and other billionaires as an “oppressed minority” who should be given “automatic knighthoods”.
When the then Conservative Chancellor George Osborne proposed what was known as an “oligarch tax” in 2014, Johnson said it would be “utterly nuts” to discourage the “astonishing transformations” their wealth had produced in the UK.
“Boris Johnson has been the biggest enabler of oligarchy power in British politics”, Byrne says.
“Johnson enabled bad money to flood into the Conservative Party, he encouraged oligarchs to use our courts for everything from libel to divorce settlements when he was mayor of London, and he has systematically failed to prepare the British state to take on and deal with Putin’s hybrid war.”
“So history will not judge him well on this.”
Byrne says he believes this trail of Russian money can be traced back to the Brexit campaign.
“The challenge for the Conservatives today is that a lot of the ratlines that were put down to route Russia-connected money to the Brexit campaign were then obviously used and expanded to route money to Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign and now to the Conservative Party”, he says.
“So that’s why you just keep stumbling on connection after connection.”
For these reasons, Byrne is unconvinced by Johnson’s sudden transformation into a politician seeking to tackle Russian influence in the UK.
“I don’t think he’s changed in any way shape or form”, Byrne says.
“I think he’s a deeply compromised politician. I want to know how he’s paid off the debts for refurbishing Downing Street and the extent to which he is morally and politically, if not financially, in debt to all sorts of bad actors.”
Because Corbyn wasn’t interested in any of that it was left to a small group of us on the backbenches to pursue this and I think to a large extent, we were sort of treated as rather eccentric, Remainer obsessivesBen Bradshaw MP
One of the most controversial figures linked to the Conservative Party is Lubov Chernukhin, whose husband was a former finance minister to Vladimir Putin.
Chernukhin’s donations to the Conservative Party have bought her close access to our three most recent prime ministers. Theresa May and other senior ministers were pictured at a fundraising event with her and Both Johnson and former Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to a game of tennis with her in return for a large donation to the party. Chernukhin donated a further £80,000 to the party at the end of last year, just months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This close relationship between individuals linked to Moscow and the British establishment extends well beyond Johnson and the Conservative Party.
Over the last decade, oligarchs and their proxies have been allowed increasing influence over large parts of British political, financial, sporting and cultural life. Part of the reason why the UK’s sanctions programme has been so slow to roll out, is the extent to which Russian money and influence have become entangled in the UK.
“What’s been allowed to happen is you’ve got a large number of Russian-linked actors here, who have been allowed to enjoy Londongrad, and are pretty well integrated into politics, public life and charities and sports”, Byrne tells Byline Times.
“And what has basically gelled is a culture where it’s been okay to work really closely with these people and for people not to understand that they’re at the receiving end of pretty methodically organised, influence operation.”
Byrne says this culture created a “permissive environment” which allowed “dodgy characters with dodgy connections to an enemy regime to flourish. It’s as simple as that”.
A new political consensus
Bradshaw believes that these kinds of arguments have not always met a receptive audience in his own party. The Labour MP, who is a long-term critic of Jeremy Corbyn, says his arguments failed to get a hearing from his former leader, who he describes as a “Putin apologist”.
“We could have done a lot more to expose the relationships between the Kremlin and far right-parties and organisations across the whole of Europe, including the Leave campaign”, he says.
“But because Corbyn wasn’t interested in any of that it was left to a small group of us on the backbenches to pursue this and I think to a large extent, we were sort of treated as rather eccentric, Remainer obsessives.”
Allies of Corbyn point out that while he was heavily criticised by some for his response to the Sergei Skripal poisoning, the former Labour leader did also have a record of criticising Putin and was shouted down in Parliament when he raised the issue of Russian funding of the Conservative Party.
But whatever the historic internal disputes within the Labour Party on this issue, a new consensus is undoubtedly being built right across the House of Commons and beyond.
Last week a series of Conservative backbenchers stood up in the House of Commons to call on Johnson to take the threat from Russia more seriously, with two members of his party going so far as to suggest that Lebedev and other Russian-linked members of the House of Lords should be stripped of their peerages.
Until very recently such suggestions would have been a complete no-go within the Conservative Party, whose members proudly signed up to organisations such as the Conservative Friends of Russia group and the Westminster Russia Forum.
However, with both groups now disbanded, there are very few voices remaining in British politics who are still calling for Britain to forge a closer relationship with Moscow.
Byrne believes this new consensus is also starting to be shared by parts of the British press which had previously ignored the issue.
There have been lone voices in the press working on this like yourself, Tom Burgis and Catherine Belton, but now their work is centre stage”, Byrne says.
“And I think a lot of the media who were very worried about taking on the expensive lawyers of oligarchs now realise that this corruption is pretty endemic, and unless we cast it out, that cancer is going to kill our country.”