Government 'actively avoided' looking at whether Russia tried to influence Brexit referendum, says report

Ross McGuinness
·4-min read

Downing Street has insisted the result of the Brexit referendum was “fair” after the government was accused of “actively avoiding” examining whether Russia tried to influence the outcome.

MPs on parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) said that ministers “didn’t want to know” about widespread allegations of meddling in the 2016 referendum.

A damning report published by the ISC on Tuesday said the government “took its eye off the ball” and failed to respond to the threat posed by Russia.

Speaking shortly after the publication of the report, a Downing Street spokesman said that Boris Johnson is “absolutely” confident the 2016 EU referendum result was fair.

The PM’s spokesman said: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum.”

ISC member and SNP MP Stewart Hosie said the government “actively avoided” trying to address questions on the issue.

BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 19, 2020: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C L-R) talk during a meeting on the sidelines of an international summit on Libya; the summit is to discuss efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation between Libya's government and General Haftar; right: the Russian president's adviser Yuri Ushakov. Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Alexei Nikolsky\TASS via Getty Images)
Prime minister Boris Johnson and Russia's president Vladimir Putin at an international summit on Libya in January. (Getty Images)

He said: "There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.”

"This is in stark contrast to the US response to reported interference in the 2016 presidential election.

"There should have been an assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and there must now be one, and the public must be told the results of that assessment."

The committee concluded that the government was "was slow to recognise the existence of the threat" from Russia.

File photo dated 13/3/2018 of the Russian flag outside the Russian Embassy in London. An investigation has found that Russia attempted to influence the Scottish independence referendum but not the Brexit vote, according to reports.
A report by MPs has criticised the government's handling of the threat of interference from Russia. (PA)

Russia report publication delayed

Publication of the committee's report was postponed after Boris Johnson's decision to call a general election and the subsequent delays in setting up the ISC in the new parliament.

Committee member and Labour MP Kevan Jones said there was "no reason" for the delay in the publication of the report.

He said claims by the prime minister it required six weeks to get his confirmation for the report were "categorically not true".

Jones also said that claims by Number 10 the report needed to be further circulated for comment in government were "not true".

Labour MP Lisa Nandy said it was “extraordinary” that the report was not published before last December’s general election.

Government ‘badly underestimated’ threat from Russia

The committee said Russian influence in the UK is "the new normal" as successive governments have welcomed oligarchs with open arms.

There were Russians with "very close links" to its leader Vladimir Putin who were "well integrated into the UK business, political and social scene – in 'Londongrad' in particular”, it said.

The report warned of the threat posed by Putin-linked business elites in the UK and the ISC said transparency in the House of Lords should be increased to determine if there is Russian influence on peers.

The ISC noted that "a number of members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies" and these relationships should be "carefully scrutinised" given the potential for Moscow to exploit them.

Speaking after the publication of the report, foreign secretary Dominic Raab said: "We've been clear that Russia must desist from its attacks on the UK and our allies.

"We will be resolute in defending our country, our democracy and our values from such hostile state activity."

Government rejects claim it ‘underestimated’ Russia threat

In its 20-page response to the report, the government rejected the accusation it had “badly underestimated” the threat from Russia.

It said: "The government has long recognised there is an enduring and significant threat posed by Russia to the UK and its allies, including conventional military capabilities, disinformation, illicit finance, influence operations, and cyber-attacks.

“As such, Russia remains a top national security priority for the government."

The government also rejected the call for an assessment of alleged Russian activity during the Brexit referendum.

It said: "We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum.

"Where new information emerges, the government will always consider the most appropriate use of any intelligence it develops or receives, including whether it is appropriate to make this public.

"Given this long standing approach, a retrospective assessment of the EU referendum is not necessary."

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