The prime minister’s decision to sit on the ‘Russian connection’ report could backfire on him, says JAMES BALL.
At the start of the campaign, you would have been forgiven for thinking that if any party was going to have a Russian problem in the 2019 general election it would be Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
His long-standing, hard-left track record, mistrust of the USA and Nato alliance, public admiration for Leon Trotsky, and apparent doubts over Russia’s culpability in the 2018 Novichok attacks in Salisbury and chemical strikes in Syria could surely make the basis for an easy Conservative attack advert.
Factor in his chief strategist Seumas Milne’s long-established sympathy for Russian leadership – including a cosy on-stage interview with Vladimir Putin in 2014 – and publicly-stated concerns over his security clearance from intelligence officers, and you’d think the case was clear-cut.
And yet, extraordinarily, you would have been wrong. Instead, it is Boris Johnson and his Conservative allies who are facing a veritable Russian doll of headaches over their own connections and ties to the Russian government and to the elite which surrounds it.
How such an apparent foreign policy open goal turned into an own goal centres around what could easily have been a one- or two-day story for the prime minister – the publication of a report by parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) on alleged Russian interference in British politics.
The committee itself had finished its report months ago, and the document had been appropriately cleared and vetted by security services by early October. So it was ready for publication just as soon as the prime minister cleared it, a process which usually takes just a few weeks.
By mid-October, it was clear to everyone an election was imminent, which to any reasonable observer would only intensify the reasons to publish the report: If the public were about to be sent back to the voting booths, then surely it was only reasonable that they got to read whether or not the last election was free of interference, and to consider what could be done to make sure the next one was safe?
The MPs on the committee certainly thought so, as did several others. Unfortunately Johnson, apparently, did not – and refused to allow the committee to publish, citing vague ‘security’ reasons. Barring some unconventional means of bringing it to light, the report will now sit unpublished for months, as it takes several weeks after a new parliament forms for a new intelligence and security committee to be appointed.
The result is a situation which looks damning for the prime minister. There was a report which most informed people expect will only be mildly embarrassing for the Tories and the PM (it is said to contain evidence from UK intelligence services concerning covert Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the referendum and 2017 general election, but there are no hints it finds any conspiracy or complicity on the British side) that could have been published but was not.
The natural result of that is people are wondering whether there was something much worse in there – or at least trying to remind themselves of what we know about the prime minister and his ties to Russia. And here, at least, there is no shortage of connections.
The report almost certainly doesn’t contain the smoking gun some might imagine – but by drawing attention to it, the PM has certainly created the backfire of reminding us about some of his party’s more questionable Russian links.
For the Conservatives, the most obvious headache comes from the party’s financial ties to multiple Russian businessmen – nine of whom, the Sunday Times reported last week, are named in the unpublished ISC report.
The donors include Alexander Temerko, who has referred to Boris Johnson as a “friend”, a former Russian defence minister who has given more than £1 million to the Conservatives in recent years. Also reportedly named is Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Russia’s former defence minister, who donated almost half a million pounds this year – and who once paid £160,000 for a tennis match with Boris Johnson and David Cameron during the latter’s time as prime minister.
The donations were legal under UK law, which allows anyone registered on the electoral roll to donate as an individual, and any UK trading company to do the same, and there has been no public suggestion or evidence the donations were anything other than wealthy backers choosing to support their party of choice.
However, the donations are just one of a litany of connections the Conservatives are finding themselves having to explain. This month shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has been asking questions about three years Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s senior adviser, spent in Russia in the 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the levels of security vetting to which he has since been subjected in Downing Street.
Cummings was in Russia during a period when many ambitious UK businessmen spent time in the country, hoping its liberalisation would give them opportunities to advance or even get rich, and so would be a perfectly logical place for someone like Cummings to travel to. But trying to explain such things in the flurry of an election campaign, against the backdrop of a very different Russia, is hardly fun.
It gets even less fun for Johnson himself. One of the most unfortunate pictures from his time as foreign secretary is a friendly shot of him in full black tie next to a man named Joseph Mifsud, a professor at an Italian university.
Though hardly a household name, Mifsud is a central figure in another Russian tale starring someone else Johnson is on friendly terms with – Donald Trump. It was Mifsud who was alleged to be the link between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government.
It was Mifsud who allegedly told junior Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos that the Russian government had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton which it wanted to share with the campaign – something illegal under US electoral law, but which nonetheless led to a meeting between a Russian lawyer and senior Trump campaign aides, including the president’s son, in Trump Tower itself.
Johnson might reasonably argue that senior Conservatives attend a lot of black tie dinners, often with donors, and lots of people want and take photos with them – and he may have spoken with Mifsud (who denies any wrongdoing) for just seconds before or after the photograph. It’s just another embarrassing coincidence.
Other relationships are much less coincidental, even if they may just be embarrassing for different reasons. The Guardian has reported multiple stories detailing Johnson’s trips to parties in the Italian mountain villa of Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev.
Johnson attended a weekend of partying there during his time as foreign secretary, in a breach of standard protocol, without his security detail, and was pictured at the small local airport the day after by bemused tourists looking somewhat the worse for wear.
Johnson’s past partying may just be another indiscretion in the life of a prime minister with a notoriously colourful private life – but even that raises some eyebrows among the securocrat circles of London, who are long familiar with Russia, its methods of influence, and its habit for kompromat.
Some look at Johnson, his love of being flattered, his complex personal relationships, his parties and his affairs, and cannot help but see worrying parallels between the prime minister and that other blonde, larger-than-life world leader, Trump.
Trump’s ties to Russia could hardly be deeper or more obvious. He planned a multi-million pound apartment block in Moscow while campaigning for the US presidency, and even allegedly offered an apartment to Putin.
His campaign was greatly boosted when Russian agents hacked email accounts of his opponent’s campaign and passed them to WikiLeaks. He faced a huge public investigation over attempts to block investigation into his campaign’s Russian ties. And his presidency has done much to further Putin’s aims.
Few in the UK think Johnson is remotely in the same league as his Atlantic counterpart – but they can’t help but see the similarities, to conclude that Russia is playing the same games with the same tactics here, and wondering if they are at least enjoying some of the same successes here, even if on a smaller scale.
At the very least, some will wonder at the holding back of a report which surely would have been critical of Russia and its efforts, and improved scrutiny and countermeasures to any efforts from Russia to tamper with the vote in 2019, and wonder whether its biggest beneficiary was none other than Putin himself.
Johnson was almost certainly talked into holding back the report for short-term political advantage, to avoid a day or two of potentially embarrassing headlines, and nothing more. But by doing so he has opened the door to questions and concerns about himself – and about the election itself. It could prove a costly mistake.