UK avoided investigating Russian interference in Brexit, report finds

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 past debates about the vote as he has pledged to move the country on from the past divisions over Brexit.

But the panel said a full inquiry – with findings made public – would be essential. “It is important to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process, irrespective of whether it was successful or not,” the ISC report said.

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 know 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 what attempts to influence it there may have been,” Hosie said.

Chair of the intelligence and security committee (ISC) MP Julian Lewis, which published the long-awaited report into alleged Russian interference in the Brexit vote. Photo: AFP

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 UK accused Russia of trying to interfere in the 2019 election and presented findings, backed by the US and Canada, of Russian hackers’ attempts to steal coronavirus vaccine research.

In its report, the ISC said Russia is so embedded in the British establishment that attempts to curb its influence are focused on damage limitation rather than prevention.

The committee found the British government has failed to tackle the threat to democracy from Russian interference.

The cross-party committee called for a full intelligence report on Russian attempts to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum along similar lines to investigations in the US into meddling in its democracy.

The UK intelligence services were too focused on counterterrorism and not enough on protecting democracy, the report said. Some sections on the report on the Brexit referendum were redacted.

In its response, Johnson’s government said it had so far seen nothing that warranted an inquiry into Brexit. “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum,” the government said in a written statement.

Ministers will always consider “new information” and how to use “any intelligence” they receive, the government said. “Given this long-standing approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU Referendum is not necessary.”

A Brexit-themed billboard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in London in November 2018. Photo: AFP

A Brexit-themed billboard depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen in London in November 2018. Photo: AFP

The ISC report examines the sweeping extent of Russia’s involvement in British public life. It said the UK intelligence services were too focused on counterterrorism and not enough on protecting democracy.

“Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth,” the report said. “This level of integration – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular – means that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.”

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.

“I hope that at least this time – after the rich experience of Britain’s allies with investigations of interference, which later led to negative results and didn’t confirm anything – at least that there’ll be some documents devoid of unfounded accusations and insinuations,” he said.

“Russia has never interfered in the electoral processes of any country in the world: not in the United States, not in the United Kingdom, nor in other countries,” Peskov said. “We don’t do this ourselves and we don’t tolerate it when other countries try to interfere in our political affairs.”

Many in the intelligence community regard the findings as already out of date. Yet Johnson, who said last year he had read the document, dragged his feet over its publication, only agreeing the nomination of new members for the committee needed to publish it earlier this month.

“The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operation,” the report said. “Its lack of democracy and rule of law allows its intelligence agencies to act quickly, without constraint or consideration.”

The prime minister’s eventual efforts to reconvene the cross-party panel with a friendly chairman were embarrassingly thwarted last week, when members voted for Conservative MP Julian Lewis, instead of former Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. Lewis was promptly kicked out of the Party for standing against Johnson’s chosen candidate.

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