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Boris Johnson accused of giving Kremlin green light to meddle in UK politics after rejecting Russia report’s recommendations

‘We have identified the problem, we now need to fix it. If we don’t fix it, they will do more of it’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Tuesday 21 July 2020 19:36 BST
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Bill Browder on refusal to investigate Russian cash & Brexit meddling

Boris Johnson has been accused of giving the Kremlin the green light to meddle in UK politics after throwing out the recommendations of a long-suppressed report which found it is “the new normal”.

Security experts, campaigners and politicians united in criticism after the Russia report’s findings – including of “potential” interference in the Brexit referendum – were dismissed within hours.

The government refused to hold an investigation into the 2016 vote, while also rejecting warnings of dirty Russian money and power infiltrating the “London laundromat” and the House of Lords.

The move came after the report by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) accused successive Conservative prime ministers of failing to investigate whether Russia had intervened in the Brexit referendum, despite years of warnings.

Pauline Neville-Jones, a former Conservative security minister, said the response betrayed a failure to “change mindset” and devote resources to threats including “social media manipulation”.

Julian Knight, the Tory chair of the Commons media committee – which warned of Russian interference in 2019 – said the fresh report “piles on the evidence that there can be no excuse for further delay”.

And Bill Browder, the British businessperson and target of Vladimir Putin, warned: “We have identified the problem, we now need to fix it. If we don’t fix it, they will do more of it.”

Ministers will be hauled to the Commons on Wednesday to answer the charge of failing to act on “hostile state activity, from cyber warfare, interfering in democratic processes, acts of violence on UK soil and illicit finance”.

The backlash came after the report, finally released – nine months late – by the ISC said the government had failed to:

* Fully recognise the threat from Russia – despite “the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014”.

* Investigate whether Russia intervened in the Brexit referendum – “whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process”.

* Act on “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”.

* Ensure scrutiny of the Lords – where a number of peers “have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state”.

* Act on abuse of the UK’s investor visa scheme – which offers “ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’”.

At a press conference, Kevan Jones, a Labour member of the ISC, pointed to the fears of referendum-meddling, saying: “The outrage is that no one wanted to know if there was interference.”

And Stewart Hosie, an SNP member, said: “This goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10ft pole. There must now be [an investigation] – and the public must be told the results of that assessment.”

The ISC inquiry was launched after the revelation that Russia-based Twitter accounts posted more than 45,000 messages about Brexit in just 48 hours in the referendum run-up.

It reveals MI5 “provided just six lines of text” in response to fears of Russian meddling, something the MPs put down to an “illogical” reluctance to get involved in a political controversy.

But, just one hour after the report’s publication, Dominic Raab dismissed the investigation demand, insisting: “A retrospective assessment of the EU referendum is not necessary.”

At a press conference, alongside US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, the foreign secretary insisted Moscow was a “top national security priority”, adding: “We are not for a second complacent about the threat Russia poses.”

The Kremlin angrily protested against the report’s conclusions claiming: “The charges are once again unfounded, unsubstantiated and unconvincing.”

But Baroness Neville-Jones, a former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, said ministers were too eager to hope for the best about Russia, adding: “The balance is wrong and I think we need to think more to the hostile side of things.”

Mr Browder warned about a failure to prosecute Russian money launderers, amid a fear that “the golden goose stops laying those eggs”.

“There’s too many people benefiting from this flow of funds,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are getting money who don’t want the money to stop.”

Asked why Britons should care, he added: “People in Salisbury might have asked that question until the novichok poisoning took place.”

The group Transparency International UK warned: “This report confirms Britain’s ongoing role as a ‘laundromat’ for dirty money and has major national security implications. Action needs to be taken urgently to root out illicit wealth and nefarious influence.”

The ISC probe concluded last autumn, but Mr Johnson blocked its publication before last December’s general election and has held up release for the seven months since.

Mr Jones said the prime minister’s explanations for suppressing the report were “categorically not true” – and he swerved a question about whether he had “lied”.

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