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How Russia dominated the first week of the election campaign

Boris Johnson as illustrated by Martin Rowson. Picture: Martin Rowson/TNE - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on a week of conspiracies, scandals and (allotment) plots.

At this stage in the 2019 election campaign it takes a very brave and foolhardy spirit confidently to predict the outcome. Naturally some politicians, pundits and punters rush to do so. Johnson devotees are adamant that their man has got it in the bag, several bags worth actually. Corbyn loyalists scornfully insist that their hero can scarcely miss such an open goal as Shifty Boris. Some of them probably believe it. And ‘I’m with Jo’ Swinson loudly declares she will be the next PM.

It is something no Liberal leader has achieved since David Lloyd George pulled off a similarly cynical election stunt in December 1918, as Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ ploy may not. No Tory leader has won a watertight Commons majority since Margaret Thatcher’s Last Hurrah in 1987 and World King Boris has already alienated potential allies for another minority government – as the McDonnell-Corbyn partnership (“Hi Nicola!”) has not. Newly-elected Commons speaker, emollient Sir Lindsay Hoyle, will have his work cut out and may have to find his inner Bercow if we vote ourselves into another stalemate. I had a nightmare that Farage might get the job.

Of course, we understand why some politicians need to voice daftly OTT optimism during campaigns, to sustain their own or the troops’ morale. It happens every time, so should be no surprise this winter, despite anyone with half a brain knowing how much could go wrong, when the voters are being offered such unappealing and unstable choices. The BBC’s story about Alun Cairns’ rape trial protégé in Wales looks like a pre-cooked ambush. Not so Jake (“common sense”) Mogg’s spontaneous gaffe on LBC.

The prospective four-way split – Con, Lab, Lib and assorted Nationalists, including Thirsty Nigel’s English kind – further enhances the unpredictability of the next House of Commons. The unpredictable tendencies at play became apparent in the campaign’s opening skirmishes much faster than I would have predicted a week ago.

Even before the formal campaign began on Wednesday, the reckless scale of public spending commitments by the two main parties quickly became an issue thanks to the vigilance of respected independent analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IfS) and the Resolution Foundation (RF). Experts, as we used to call them, are widely mistrusted nowadays, but new research suggests that twice as many Leave voters mistrust them as Remainers. Gosh, who knew?

There will be other opportunities here to discuss public spending before December 12 – including Sajid Javid’s cheeky bid to dump on Labour when his own plans are scarcely more credible. Treasury officials scuppered that, just as J-C Juncker has intervened this week to dismiss the Tory timetable for completing Brexit, withdrawal and transition phases by next Christmas is delusional. So is Labour’s tortured six-month deal and referendum formula.

Secondly, in his impatience to hear the reassuring sound of his own voice, Nigel (“Betrayed”) Farage immediately overplayed his hand. His importunate efforts to blackmail the Conservatives into some sort of electoral pact was equally rapidly rejected by Team Johnson – “no ifs and buts” – even as it stroked the Brexit Party leader’s insatiable ego in its effort to appease the brute. Brexit Party candidates and donors were left uneasy. A few of those “600 candidates” (only 150 at the launch) quit. The Daily Mail gave Thirsty the hairdryer treatment.

Farage’s condemnation of Johnson’s deal – barely better than Theresa May’s he rightly pointed out – offended natural allies like Mark Francois MP, who chose Boris over Thirsty’s own “Drop the Deal” ultimatum and his “good little boys” taunt at people like himself. Thirsty also played his Trump card (pun unavoidable) far too soon with that ingratiating LBC interview in which the US president obligingly endorsed the Farage script on a Tory-Brexit Party pact.

Barack Obama’s restrained “end of the queue” warning in the 2016 referendum campaign was cited as justification for Trump’s clumsy infringement of British sovereignty. In a BBC interview to mark 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell, glasnost’s Mikhail Gorbachev showed better class when he ducked the BBC’s Brexit question – “you Brits are clever chaps, you don’t need advice from me”.

There again, other parties, Greens, Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems, are plotting local pacts, Brecon by-election style, all over the place to consolidate Remain’s fragmented forces. The ability of Leave and Remain to consolidate rather than dissipate their strength is 2019’s crucial variable. A few more polls showing Jeremy Corbyn “closing the gap”, or a few more unforced errors by Jake Mogg, might weaken Tory resolve to cold-shoulder Farage. It would be a humiliation, but Boris’s own ego is waterproof and – in both life and love – constancy has never been one of his guiding principles.

As for Boris’s Brain, Dominic Cummings’ tactical restlessness may drag his boss towards the Judas embrace, even though few have been more scornful of Nigel’s self-promoting pretensions than the People’s Dom. He does good scorn, does Dom, he’s had practice. But the angry nihilist in his soul also relishes chaos. As even Steve “Novice” Baker MP uneasily admitted to Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon this week, Dom will do anything to win. So will the flexibly inflexible Mail. After all, Farage’s “Split the Leave Vote and Let Corbyn In” message tactlessly illustrates an inconvenient truth. So does Boris’s reply.

But here we are, racing to the same premature speculations as those rash politicians. Tory campaigns often start badly. Let’s stick for a moment to what we think we already know for certain. That alone ought to be enough to sink the World King’s prospects. Grenfell Tower aside, let’s consider this week’s crop of unscripted misfortunes. The wholesome chain of Mothercare stores went into administration – largely our own fault (no country shops online like the Brits) – adding to fragile pre-Christmas unease in battered high streets. A temporary fracking ban was forced on the government by expert facts.

The press regulator, Ipso, required the Telegraph to correct factual errors – for the third time – in its star columnist’s slapdash work. The Tories were also caught doctoring quotes from professional health bodies to make them sound supportive of the government’s latest cash bung to the NHS as it bids to woo Midlands and Northern C1 and C2 voters from tribal Labour loyalty.

What is laughingly called an “internal review” of Boris’s handling of public money in the Jennifer Arcuri case – we will leave his handling of Ms Arcuri herself to the imagination – has cleared the then London mayor of wrong-doing. Rejoice! At last he has been cleared of wrong-doing about something. But, like Jake Mogg, this juicy tale just keeps on giving. Google the name “Annie Tacker” if you doubt me. It reads like a spoof, but isn’t.

The Arcuri affair should set alarm bells ringing in every respectable home in the kingdom, bells that scream “should this man really be trusted?” But it is important to remember that part of Boris’s appeal is to the nation’s cheerfully unrespectable homes, those where Lord Palmerston’s adulteries and Disraeli’s indulgent, romantic fantasies proved more alluring to Victorian Britain – the Britain of music halls and the race course, of jingoism and gin – than William Gladstone’s high-minded lectures. Rackety Farage also taps into that folk memory when he stages his pop-up party conferences on Doncaster racecourse.

If further proof of ethical flexibility were needed, ministers this week showed themselves determined to tough it out and avoid pre-election publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s (ISC) 50-page report on Russian interference in British politics. It just so happens that the other Dom – the fastidious Grieve – is currently chair of the ISC, a serious oversight body which does not leak like its counterparts on Capitol Hill. People’s Vote stalwart Grieve is brave and tough, but that coincidence will allow many to shrug off his concerns, especially as they are voiced in lawyerly language, not in populist technicolour.

When Dom 2.0 started complaining last week about excessive delay I assumed that Dom 2.1 would realise the wisdom of publication. Silly me. Instead voters heard Michael Gove on Tuesday shamelessly ducking the point on air. He waffled on about Jeremy Corbyn’s largely supine record towards Moscow and any other ‘liberation movement’ than can be implausibly represented as progressive, not just a bunch of shake-down merchants living well by exploiting the downtrodden.

Yes, Govey, we know about Jeremy, Seumas and Johnny McD. What we want to know is what’s in the ISC report that Boris doesn’t want the voters to know about? It’s widely accepted that Russian intelligence – FSB heirs to the KGB, the Cheka and the Tsarist garrison state – is engaged in sophisticated cyber warfare and social media disruption across the west. Yes, I’m sure we do it too (I hope we do), but we think we live by different rules and are entitled to know how our governing leadership and institutions may have been compromised. Glasnost, as Gorbachev might say, openness.

Imagine if the allegations of Moscow gold and sinister front bodies with names like ‘Labour Friends of Russia’ were the issue. No need to imagine it actually, because they often were throughout the 20th century. The MI6-forged ‘Zinoviev letter’ (take a bow, Daily Mail) helped bring down the first Labour government in 1924. It’s still an issue, as Govey and Co keep saying. Now you mention it, the Blairites are not as clean as they should be either. What has changed profoundly is that the New Right in all our countries – populist, nationalist and authoritarian – is strangely drawn to the Kremlin model and largesse, from Austria and Italy to the White House.

London – like other major western capitals – is awash with Russian money, much of it dirty, as it is with dirty Chinese money and – more important – strategic Chinese purchases of UK assets, the industrial kind as well as the Knightsbridge houses. David Cameron (an oligarch’s wife won a tennis match with him in a raffle), Boris himself, First Girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, her old boss, John Whittingdale, Leave’s Matthew Elliott, even Dom (who tried to launch an airline in Russia), all have taken the caviar. The party has taken donations.

Forget Theresa May’s expulsions after the Skripal poisonings, just as we seem to have forgotten the Khashoggi murder in Istanbul and violence in Hong Kong, the deep red carpet has been rolled out again. Johnson may not be a Putin fan like Trump, but ‘take back control’ Brexit Britain needs the money, much as mayor Boris did. Don’tcha know there’s a global recession heading our way?

Most eye-catching of all, as foreign secretary, the World King-In-Waiting went on a weekend visit to the Umbrian villa owned by the Lebedevs – Russian owners of the Evening Standard which George Osborne edits. Though he registered an unidentified companion (Annie Tacker perhaps?) he was not accompanied by FCO staff or security in April 2018 and was seen looking the worse for wear on the solitary flight home. Thank God World War III didn’t break out. This was his fourth such visit. Bunga bunga? Bunski Bunski? We don’t have to be censorious to worry about implications, Putin groupie Farage is not the only wannabe blackmailer in town. Is whatever the ISC report concludes going to impact on the election? It’s probably not too serious, but suppression of the report is a green light for unbridled speculation and conspiracy theory. In the deft hands of a Harold Wilson, a John Smith or a Tony Blair it certainly would be. Even now I can hear Wilson saying of the humdinger Profumo scandal (1963) that it was not about sex – heavens no – but “a matter of national security”. Team Corbyn is neither so skilled nor so free of taint (and Harold wasn’t wholly free).

In 2019 a bewildered public is fed up with Brexit (Sky has launched a Brexit-free news channel) and lazily scornful of all politicians. So I doubt if it will register much interest, let alone alarm. The new Global Britain is actually rather parochial, just at a time when it should be vigilant. The press is already digging its trenches on either side of the two-party divide (it has always struggled with four). Thus the Guardian prints offensive comments by Tory candidates who deserved to be dropped, while the Mail – and even the war-footing Times – does the same to excavated nastiness on social media from callow Labour candidates.

The public interest deserves better, as it does from radio and TV interviews which allow outrageous assertions to be bulldozed past polite or under-briefed interviewers by practised bullies. Viewers could rightly conclude that Farage did better on the Andrew Marr’s BBC show on Sunday than blustering Boris did with Sky’s Sophy Ridge. But Andrew Neil would not have let him get away with saying – yet again – that he wouldn’t sign any treaties with the EU, but he would do a free trade deal. What does he think a free trade deal is but a treaty? A G&T?

As we enter the campaign proper there is another important battlefield where the public interest is not yet adequately served by the mainstream media, the activities of the parties and their shadowy allies – the rouble factor again – on social media.

This is odd because we have all been vaguely aware of its potential, at least since 2008 (four years after Facebook’s student launch) when noisy Howard Dean and, more quietly, Barack Obama, harnessed the infant medium as a cash-and-volunteer force.

Doubly odd because the Silicon Valley FANGs have been devouring mainstream media’s ad revenues and reader/viewers. They are its rivals, yet have only lately started to get the hostile treatment which the Murdoch media routinely deals out to its BBC rivals. Micro-targetted ads on social media are by their nature and sheer volume hard to monitor, as The New European’s digital guru, James Ball, can explain at length. But the technology that the other side use to data mine our private thoughts and purchasing habits can surely be better used to keep a check on what Cambridge Analytica’s successors are up to: A social media monitoring unit.

I was encouraged this week when Facebook announced that it was taking down another questionable political ad with no identifying source, but linked to a former Johnson advisor. Mark Zuckerberg does not inspire much confidence that he grasps the concept of public interest when he gives evidence to Congress, and refuses to do the same for MPs. But he has hired Nick Clegg 
to help him and we must assume the former deputy prime minister is savvy enough to know what needs to be done – whatever grudges John (“It’s difficult not to use force on Clegg”) McDonnell bears him.

In fairness, old media is showing signs of catching up this time after wasting far too much energy in the 2017 campaign speculating about formats for TV debates, easy copy and personality-driven. The BBC’s Amol Rajan was quick to deconstruct a fake news video mocking Keir Starmer’s Brexit agony, cooked up in Tory HQ. Good. The voters whom all sides seek to entice are much more likely not to watch terrestrial TV news or keep up much with current affairs. They are vulnerable to an emotive sucker punch like the Starmer fake – a field of endeavour where the People’s Vote campaign has sometimes proved too lofty to exploit. On YouTube this week I stumbled on a weepy Labour “Whose side are you on?” film, which made me cringe but probably hit the spot with the kids. There are reports of high levels of spending already, Farage (using Republican software) and Johnson targeting Labour Geordies, Labour trying to bribe everyone with “rich people’s” money.

It’s so cheap and cost-effective, social media ads, not the policies. Apart from those Russian bots and dark money from Steve Bannon’s “anti-elitist” billionaire friends in New York the real worry is that social media campaigning is not regulated by a state-authorised regulator like the Electoral Commission, under-funded and always struggling to keep up. Nor is its spending capped or easy to source. Both facts are disturbing in their implications. We have not been so vulnerable to corrupted elections since Gladstone’s reforms in the 1880s put an end to public voting and bribery – ie free drinks – after he realised he’d been defeated in 1874 by “a torrent of beer and gin”.

In 2019, Boris is the beer and gin candidate – red wine on those sofas of Camberwell too – if he can see off Thirsty Nigel. Herbivorous Jeremy Corbyn, “Stalin” according to Boris, is actually the allotments candidate, the place where he reportedly plots with John and Diane to thwart non-gardener Seumas’ pro-Brexit schemes. Allotments too are an admired British tradition. Alas, this election has come too soon for urgently-needed regulation of social media or the protection of allotments from rapacious developers. Like so much else, reform is an opportunity cost, one swallowed by the ravenous beast that is ‘Getting Brexit Done’. Phil Hammond and co may, alas, be wise to flee the field.

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