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Russian Roulette: Foreign Interference and how the Conservatives are Gambling with our Elections

Despots and kleptocrats have their eyes trained on British politics – and our laws are doing little to protect us

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Kremlin Pool/Alamy

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Seven years after the Brexit referendum that reshaped British politics forever, we still do not know the scale of Russian interference in the years before or since. 

There was no comprehensive, investigative, Mueller Report like we saw in the US. Instead, the Government sat on Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s 2020 report into Russian interference. Boris Johnson’s administration failed to implement any of its recommendations. And if Rishi Sunak’s actions are anything to go by, there’s little sign of that changing. 

The UK now finds itself in an uneasy position of facing a national security issue of enormous significance – the glaring loopholes in its legal structure allowing foreign powers to tamper with the sanctity of its democracy – and a Government based on ‘integrity and accountability’ that is unwilling to act on it. 

When the House of Lords gathers on 21 June to review the National Security Bill, it is not merely a routine legislative task: there is a chance to confront some of the vulnerabilities in our political system that can be, and have been, exploited through donations from foreign powers.

The infiltration of foreign influence into the UK’s political landscape is not a new phenomenon. Our political parties face being influenced not with the stick but the carrot – the rustling of banknotes filling party coffers.

In 2020, the Intelligence and Security Committee blew the whistle on the unsettling truth,  pointing to the generous inflow of funds from members of the Russian elite to UK political parties. 


Tainted Cash

The Chinese Communist Party has form here too. Last January, MI5 warned that an alleged Chinese agent had sought to influence UK parliamentarians on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), having donated to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. And only this April, concerns were raised in Parliament about alleged links between the CCP and Conservative Party fundraising. 

The Policing Minister said “all political parties need to be alert to the danger of representatives of hostile states seeking to infiltrate or influence their activities”. And yet, there is almost no requirement for them to be vigilant and show how they’re protecting national security. 

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Since the start of the Ukraine war in 2022, the Conservatives have accepted at least £243,000 from Russia-associated donors, the Good Law Project recently found. But that may be just a small part of the picture. Only donations over £500 are even classed as a donation under our election rules. 

Donate 14 lots of £499 and your name doesn’t even have to be shared with the Electoral Commission – let alone published (the publication threshold is £7,500). This is not a tip to dodgy donors. Sadly, they will already know this, as it’s practically pinned up in neon lights all over the internet. 


Loopholes Galore

Now, you might argue that the UK has been tough on Russia and China. At times, yes – at a national level. But Britain has been pathetically slow at tackling money laundering or lawfare – the use of British courts by oligarchs to silence critics.

The rich are still able to hide their identities and their assets behind shady offshore trusts and opaque Companies House records, the All Party Political Group on Anti-Corruption notes this week.

And the current iteration off the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, also being debated in the Lords this week, sees small and medium-sized companies excluded from a strengthened duty to prevent fraud. It is a security-free, ‘nothing to declare’ zone.

Threats to our political integrity always come wearing big grey coats and black shades. The Elections Act 2022 allowed up to 3.5 million British nationals living overseas to be added to the UK’s electoral register, no matter how long they have lived abroad. 

Despite its ostensibly noble intentions, it has inadvertently flung open the door to potential foreign influence in our political arena. Why? Any investigations into funding from British citizen donors abroad need the cooperation of those nation states. Are British citizens funnelling cash to UK parties from, say, Belarus, really going to have their fitness and propriety checked by Lukashenko’s pro-Russian police? 

Our collective armour against foreign interference has a label on it saying ‘for display purposes only’.

Consider the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA), legislation meant to ensure transparency on political donations. It allows any company that does business in the UK – whatever its source of revenue or funds – to donate to UK parties. 


A Legacy of Inaction

Agencies charged with enforcing the law and curbing this issue appear to be fighting a losing battle. PPERA requires UK political parties to check the electoral registration status of donors, but does not require them to do any checks on the true source of funds. That ramps up the risk of UK-registered ‘proxy donors’ giving on behalf of third parties.

And though it is an offence to facilitate a political contribution by an impermissible donor, Spotlight on Corruption says that this is incredibly difficult to enforce and requires evidence of a conspiracy. Rarely is there a smoking gun. 

Between 2011 and 2021, the Electoral Commission referred eight cases to the Metropolitan Police. Yet, no prosecutions under PPERA took place. 

This feeble enforcement regime indirectly encourages more abuses of the law. What’s the deterrent if there are no convictions? 

Despite mounting evidence and persistent calls for change, the Government has maintained a state of nonchalance. 

In 2021, the Committee on Standards in Public Life proposed a robust framework: parties should implement procedures to identify the true source of donations and develop a risk-based policy for managing them. It argued that this would plug the leaks in our system and prevent the seepage of foreign money into our politics.

Last May, the chair of the Electoral Commission agreed, saying that political parties should have a duty to know where their donations have come from as a safeguard against unlawful foreign money and to protect public confidence. 


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Spare Any Change

Then came March this year, and some glimmers of sunlight. The House of Lords passed an amendment to the National Security Bill requiring UK political parties to identify and manage the risks of donations from foreign powers. But ministers voted down that amendment in the Commons – despite strong cross-party support.

The Government asserts that the current rules are “proportionate”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Hostile states are waging global influencing wars – and our defence system is an honesty box, based on the idea that everyone is a ‘good chap’ with no scope for wrongdoing. 

In a debate during the National Security Bill’s report stage on 1 March, one of the pro-reform amendment’s sponsors Lord Evans – a former head of MI5 – said that we should take this “modest step… in the right direction”. 

In the Commons, the Conservative chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Sir Julian Lewis, said that the need for political parties to do more to determine the source of donations is “entirely appropriate” and that the additional measures “would not be over-onerous”. These calls were ignored.

It’s not the first time ministers have blocked measures aimed at boosting transparency over donations. The Government rejected the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s recommendations in last year’s Elections Bill – now Act – again on the basis that it felt the current rules to be adequate. Security experts and anti-corruption bodies profoundly disagree. 

This week, peers will have the opportunity to once again support the amendment demanding due diligence on political donations. They can take a modest step to closing the loopholes. 

Will the Conservatives stop blocking it and put their tough rhetoric on hostile states into action? After all, what use is tough talk on Russia and China if dictators’ cronies are able to stuff our politicians’ pockets? 


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