As Boris Johnson sought to talk up Britain’s role in countering Russian aggression in Ukraine, his efforts at statesmanlike gravitas were undermined yet again as Tory party links to Russian money and successive Conservative governments’ failure to investigate alleged Kremlin interference in the Brexit referendum muddied the domestic debate.
While no one comes out smelling of roses from a global crisis where realpolitik, the price of oil and gas and other murkier considerations are being weighed against the fate of a sovereign nation, Brexit-weakened Britain finds itself in a particularly unedifying situation, partly because of London’s reputation as a “laundromat” for dodgy Russian-linked funds and partly because of unresolved questions around that alleged Russian interference in domestic politics, notably the Brexit referendum in 2016.
Nothing has ever been proved, but as the saying goes the proof of the pudding is in the eating and this is a dish no one in successive Tory governments seems to have any appetite to tackle. The problem for Johnson is that it’s still on the table, as he found during PMQs on Wednesday.
When the long-delayed Russia Report was published by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in July 2020, it found that government and intelligence agencies made no serious effort to find out if the Kremlin had successfully interfered in the Brexit referendum. The report, which took 18 months to prepare and included evidence from spy agencies and independent experts, was heavily redacted but its conclusions were pretty categorical.
“The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum because they did not want to know,” Stewart Hosie, a Scottish National Party MP who sits on the cross-party committee, said at the time. “We were told that they hadn’t seen any evidence, but that is meaningless if they hadn’t looked for it,” he said, adding that no one wanted to touch the issue with a “10ft barge pole”.
Fast forward nearly two years and with war threatening the edge of Europe, the Russia Report was again a heated talking point in the House of Commons on Wednesday as Green MP Caroline Lucas was nearly shouted down as she asked Johnson about its conclusions.
As Tory MPs howled and Johnson shook his head, she reminded Johnson that in 2017 he corrected Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when he said, during a joint press conference, that there was no evidence of Russian interference in UK elections. Johnson retorted that there was no evidence of “successful interference”. And so Lucas asked what evidence he had seen of unsuccessful interference. Had he read the Russia Report, she wondered.
“I’ve seen no evidence of successful Russian interference in any elections or electoral event,” Johnson said. But as the report pointed out, one is unlikely to see such evidence if one doesn’t look for it.
This wasn’t the only salty whiff of something sordid wafting through PMQs even if Johnson did try to keep the focus on the fact that the government will indeed be beefing up its sanctions on Russian oligarchs and entities after a “first barrage” of measures – against five relatively small banks and three individuals already sanctioned by the US – received a decidedly lukewarm reception, even from MPs on his own side, on Tuesday.
“There is more to come,” Johnson said. “We will be stopping Russia from raising sovereign debt, stopping Russian companies from raising money and stopping Russian companies, as I said yesterday, even clearing in sterling and dollars on the international markets. That will hit Putin where it hurts.”
Johnson’s problem is that his actions now are being viewed through the prism of the UK’s reputation as a safe home for dodgy Russian money. Or as the Scottish National Party’s Ian Blackford described it: “the sewer of dirty money allowed to run through London for years under the Tories”.
Labour leader Keir Starmer, while trying to walk a fine line between support for the government in a time of crisis and criticism of its seemingly lackadaisical approach to the problem of Russian money, said the “era of oligarch impunity” must end with the UK no longer acting as a home for Russian loot.
Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, whose gaffe-heavy shuttle diplomacy over the last few weeks might at best be marked “could do better”, was forced on Wednesday to answer questions about whether the UK’s initial kid-glove approach to sanctions might be linked in any way to the almost £2m donated to the Conservative party since Johnson became leader by people with links to Russia. Labour’s David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, said the money should be returned.
“All donations to the Conservative party are from people on the electoral register in Britain, those donations are properly declared,” Truss told Sky News. “Now, there are many people who have moved from Russia to Britain who are not necessarily friends of Vladimir Putin and who have become British citizens. That is a completely different matter from people who are close to Vladimir Putin who are backing his appalling regime,” she added.
Proving that you can never keep a good question down, the SNP’s Blackford pushed the point in the House of Commons.
“The truth is that Russian oligarchs, who give the right people in power a golden handshake, have been welcomed into London for years. Their activities were not stopped; they were encouraged,” he said, going on to quote an American think-tank that raised concerns that close ties between Russian money and the Conservative party could block stronger sanctions.
“How can our allies trust this Prime Minister to clean up dirty Russian money in the UK, if he won’t even clean it up in his own political party?” he asked, to which Johnson replied that the Tories do not accept money from Russian oligarchs but only from people registered to vote on the UK register of interests.
It feels a little shabby, perhaps, to be forced into the gutter of party political financial glad-handling when the world is on fire but reductiveness is definitely one of the few strong points of Johnson’s seemingly rhetoric-high, details-shy government.