U.K. Accused of Turning Blind Eye to Russian Meddling in Brexit

The British government failed to investigate whether Russia interfered in the Brexit referendum and “actively avoided” looking into it, according to a long-anticipated parliamentary inquiry.

Members of the Intelligence and Security Committee accused ministers of deliberately dodging the question because they did not want to know whether Russia had tried to interfere in the 2016 vote to quit the European Union. The government dismissed the findings and rejected the panel’s call for a full review into whether the Kremlin swayed the referendum.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told reporters in London he considered the matter over in spite of the committee’s request for a deeper probe. “We categorically reject” the allegations, he said, adding that we “are not for a second complacent about the threat Russia poses when it comes to cyber.”

The recommendation for a full-scale intelligence investigation into Brexit is a key point in a long-delayed report on Russian involvement in British politics by the watchdog which oversees the work of the U.K. spy agencies.

It is a politically explosive subject and one that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be reluctant to revisit. The aftermath of the referendum split the country, leading to years of turmoil and uncertainty for business and bringing down two prime ministers.

Look Away

Johnson, who led the controversial pro-Brexit campaign, is now in charge and seeking to negotiate a future trade deal with the EU. He will want to avoid reopening the debate about the vote as he has pledged to move the country on from past divisions over Brexit.

The panel of politicians insist a full inquiry -- with findings made public -- is essential “to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a U.K. democratic process, irrespective of whether it was successful or not.”

It said that the government only “belatedly realized the level of threat which Russia could pose” after the so-called “hack and leak” operation against the Democratic National Committee in the 2016 U.S. election.

Action Sooner

Members of the panel criticized the government for failing to try to establish what had happened sooner.

“The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered or sought to influence the referendum because they did not want to know,” Stewart Hosie, a Scottish Nationalist member of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said in a briefing. “The committee found it astonishing that no one in government had sought beforehand to protect the referendum from such attempts or investigate afterwards.”

The study, which was delayed by nine months, threatens to further damage relations between London and Moscow, which have been in deep trouble since the 2018 Salisbury poisonings. Last week, the U.K. accused Russia of trying to interfere in the 2019 election and presented findings, backed by the U.S. and Canada, of Russian hackers’ attempts to steal coronavirus vaccine research.

The Highlights

In its report, the ISC said:

  • Russian influence in the U.K. is the “new normal.”
  • Successive administrations allowed oligarchs to launder illicit finances through London.
  • This led to a cottage industry of “enablers” including lawyers, accountants, and estate agents.
  • Defense of democracy is a “hot potato”, with no single branch of government considering itself to be in the lead.
  • Social media companies must remove covert hostile state material.
  • Russia attempted cyber attacks on the Foreign Office and a U.K. military research center.
  • The U.K. should legislate on Russian payments made to unelected members of the House of Lords.

The Russian government dismissed report before it was published. It will contain “more unfounded accusations” against Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call earlier on Tuesday.

Many in the intelligence community regard the findings as already out of date. Yet Johnson, who said last year he had read the document, was seen as dragging his feet over its publication. He only agreed earlier this month to the nomination of new members for the committee, a step needed to publish the report.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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