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Forget Russian interference – more concerning is the meddling close to home

Chair of the intelligence and security committee (ISC) MP Julian Lewis. Picture: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The Russia report’s real revelations were in the way the government handled it, says LIZ GERARD.

Maybe there was no smoking gun. But there was plenty of smoke. And when it finally cleared, it revealed not the Colt 45 that some were hoping to find – that Russia interfered in the Brexit vote – but the possibly more deadly 44 Magnum, the scandal that nobody bothered to make sure that it didn’t.

The smoke has been pouring out of the government machine ever since the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report was submitted to Downing Street last autumn, starting with a catalogue of reasons why it could not be published before the election. Each of those was listed by Labour committee member Kevan Jones on Tuesday and each rejected as ‘categorically untrue’.

The more likely explanation was the Dom v Dominic scenario: that D. Cummings couldn’t stomach arch-Remainer committee chairman D. Grieve taking centre stage. Grieve had by then been kicked out of the party, so there was every reason to hope that he would not be in Westminster after the election. And so it came to pass.

With the Tories returned with a healthy majority, Boris Johnson immediately authorised the release of the report. What could possibly stop publication now? Try the absence of its authors. Only the intelligence committee could put out the document – and with no committee there could be no report. It took a record seven months to create one.

Even then the whole process was mired in the control-freakery that is the hallmark of this administration. First the membership had to be loaded to give the ruling party a majority that had not previously been the case. Then, having excised independent/cross-bench members, Downing Street set out to impose its choice of chairman on a committee whose right to pick its own leader is protected by law.

The very fact that Johnson and Cummings thought they could hand such an important role to Chris Grayling, knowing the choice would be ridiculed from all quarters, was yet another example of their belief in their invincibility. No matter how appalling any decision, they are sure that they, as the ‘masters’, will get away with it. They just issue the order, and the drones will obey.

And when they don’t? Julian Lewis – a man infinitely more qualified for the chairmanship than Grayling – dared to step up and say: ‘I’ll do it.’ Given a choice between an orang-utan and Grayling, non-Tory committee members would have voted for the orang-utan, so they naturally went with Lewis. The reprisals were swift and brutal. As with Grieve and his fellow Remainer rebels in the last parliament, the immediate reaction was ‘chuck him out’, followed by an ‘explanation’ that disintegrated at first glance.

Did Lewis give an assurance that he would vote for Grayling? It doesn’t look like it. Did he ‘collude’ with opposition parties? He didn’t need to. Simply putting his name forward was enough.

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But No.10 cannot tolerate not getting its own way. How much difference does a majority of 80 over one of 79 make, especially when the one is an ardent Brexiter who will still go into the government lobbies 99 times out of a hundred? Who cares if one man’s career is destroyed (though he may well be readmitted to the party in time for the next election)? The important thing is to deter anyone else from having the temerity to consider an independent thought.

And it works. On Monday night 338 Tories dutifully voted against amendments to the Trade Bill that would have protected the NHS and food standards and given them the right to approve or veto any deals the government negotiates. MPs who wanted Brexit in order to stop rules being imposed without parliamentary approval actually voted to allow rules to be imposed without parliamentary approval.

The fate of the NHS in any trade deal with America was, of course, a key issue in the election campaign and it may be remembered that Jeremy Corbyn produced a leaked document purporting to show that the NHS was on the table.

Last weekend the third arm of the Dominic Triangle – Raab – claimed that the Russians had ‘almost certainly’ tried to interfere with the 2019 vote through those documents, a finding unconnected to the content of the committee’s report. This was the first time a minister had explicitly accused Russia of meddling in our politics, but it was, according to Downing Street, ‘nonsense’ to link the timing of the foreign secretary’s remarks – seven months after the election and four days before the release of the Russia report – with the imminent publication. If a free press wants to push out the words ‘Corbyn’ and ‘Russia’ at such an opportune moment, the government is powerless to stop it. Or, indeed, ‘Scottish independence’ and ‘Russian interference’.

After nine months of the report proving commendably leak-proof, the Telegraph got hold of chapter and verse the night before publication. It was all there: attempts to intervene in the Scottish referendum; concerns about oligarchs’ money; the non-criticism of Arron Banks. But not, mysteriously, the central complaint that three Tory governments hadn’t taken Russian threats to our democracy seriously enough.

The Telegraph report’s opening sentence – ‘Russia tried to ‘influence’ the result of the Scottish independence referendum but not the Brexit vote’ – was spectacularly misleading.

The committee cited anecdotal evidence of trolls and bots spreading disinformation, but said it had no evidence of direct attempts at interference – because tampering with ballot papers is tricky and no one was on the lookout for other forms of meddling. In spite of the alarm bells that should have been rung by the Scottish experience.

And so, for a country tired of Brexit and bored by an old report they won’t read, the smokescreens will do their job.

The committee urged the government to hold a retrospective inquiry into possible Brexit interference. Within the hour, Raab had said no. The caravan had moved on. Rishi was dishing out inflation-busting pay rises to ‘Covid hero’ doctors, teachers and police.

Except there won’t actually be any extra money. Hospitals and schools will have to find the cash, if they can, from their existing Covid-stretched budgets. Given that some schools can barely afford books, paper or pencils, the chances of them being able to pay teachers more from September are slim.

But never mind the detail, just look at the headlines.

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