Universities at risk of 'infiltration' by China, warns Oliver Dowden

Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister
Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister - Heathcliff O'Malley

Few politicians know Rishi Sunak like Oliver Dowden.

Both men became Conservative MPs in 2015, with Mr Dowden, a Downing Street insider during the Cameron years, helping Mr Sunak step into politics. Both men endorsed Boris Johnson for the Tory leadership, rose to the Cabinet under him, then resigned from his government within weeks of each other, triggering his political demise.

And now, with Mr Sunak eventually succeeding the ousted Mr Johnson, both men are at the top, with Mr Dowden the Deputy Prime Minister at his political friend’s right-hand side.

Which makes his response all the more intriguing when asked to name something about the current Prime Minister that might surprise the public.

“He’s probably more of a Thatcherite free marketeer [than me],” Mr Dowden says. “He’s a proper conviction free marketeer, proper conviction Brexiteer.”

So even more of an Iron Lady fan? “He certainly out-Thatchers me, much to my chagrin,” he replies with a chuckle. “He believes in freedom, in a smaller state. Of course, we have inherited thanks to Covid – and this is just the facts – a big expansion of the state. That’s not where he wants to be.

“But I’m probably more of a trad-Tory than he is. He embraces modern Britain. If you go back to Margaret Thatcher, when Margaret Thatcher came in as prime minister in 1979 she was a pretty bold breath of fresh air from what you’ve previously expected. And I think he is similarly that breath of fresh air.”

The comments are more than a spin line for the Tory base. From this month, the crunching sound of a gear-change has been heard from inside the Sunak premiership.

The first year has been a patch-up job of sorts, calming the markets, easing party tensions and trying to douse inherited fires in the economy, NHS and illegal migration.

But now the Prime Minister is getting on the front foot. The loudly touted easing of net zero policies was the first sign of Mr Sunak’s new approach.

A slew of driver-friendly policies was the next. And others – each one carefully concealed within Downing Street projects which have been named after trees – are coming in the next few months.

Some are sure to be unveiled in Manchester at the annual Conservative Party conference which starts tomorrow. It is Mr Sunak’s first as party leader and potentially last before the next general election, expected some time in the autumn of 2024.

The real Rishi, it appears, is starting to stand up. And he is someone, despite the ballooning tax burden and spending levels of recent years, who, we are told, really is a small state Tory.

Mr Dowden, the 45-year-old MP for Hertsmere, is one of the few cabinet ministers directly involved in the reset. In a pre-conference interview with The Daily Telegraph, he lifts the lid on the thinking.

“I think what Rishi and I recognise is that we’ve got to get to grips with some of our long-term challenges as a country,” Mr Dowden says – a nod to the new slogan “long-term decisions for a brighter future”, unveiled on a podium earlier this month.

“People are kind of sick of politicians taking short-term positions. They expect politicians to grip the long-term challenges that most people recognise have led to some of the challenges we face right now.

“So this isn’t just like this Government or the last government. It’s a failure to grasp some of those long-term challenges

“And secondly to level with people about those challenges. I think what you saw, albeit in an ultimately unsuccessful leadership campaign from Rishi Sunak last summer, was that he was willing to be honest and level with people about the challenges we face.

“I certainly see in him and how he works, someone who’s very methodical and very deliberate and gets into the detail of issues. But then once he is determined on a course of action, he executes it and gives effect to it.”

The net zero move, most notably pushing back the ban on new petrol and diesel car sales by five years to 2035, is placed by Mr Dowden in this category.

“Let’s just be honest with people about what we can and can’t achieve in the time-frame,” Mr Dowden says, while repeating that hitting net zero by 2050 can and will be delivered.

Others, not yet unveiled, will slot into this framing. If, as now widely expected after a week of non-denials, the second leg of HS2 gets delayed or scrapped, the context given will be a Prime Minister giving honest truths about spiralling costs and deliverability.

Critics would argue, however, that the slogan rings hollow. Is pushing back interim net zero targets not a short-term political decision rather than a long-term one? The suggestion is firmly rejected by Mr Dowden.

“We could have continued and pretended that people would do these things which they weren’t going to be able to do,” he says. “It was just not realistic to say that seven years from now we wouldn’t sell a single further [new] petrol or diesel car.”

‘We have identified China as the number-one threat to our economic security’

As well as his central position in the Sunak project, Mr Dowden has his own set of policy briefs. He heads up the Cabinet Office as well as being the Deputy Prime Minister.

The official title is Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a British political curiosity that harks back to the 14th century and once involved managing the Dukes of Lancaster’s estates.

Mr Dowden’s private office has historical hints everywhere. A triptych of oil paintings capturing the 1715 Jacobite uprising hangs on one wall. A white stone bust of William Pitt the Younger is near another.

The Telegraph sits atop a pile of newspapers on a wooden coffee table – a coincidence, Mr Dowden says – but it is the digital copies of the first editions which he consumes now.

The remark echoes one of the central challenges of his role – how to protect Britain from technological advances of the future given its creaking infrastructure of the past.

In particular, this has seen Mr Dowden turn his mind to China, whose rise is the West’s great geopolitical challenge of the 21st century.

The Sunak Government has taken a middle-road approach to Beijing, calling out China when needed but engaging too, declining to brand it in entirety a “threat”, as Liz Truss moved to do as prime minister.

Mr Dowden’s team dubs it “new realism”. And it is being applied with increasing focus to one area in particular: British universities and research on “cutting edge” technology.

“I see this everywhere I go in the world, the strength that the United Kingdom derives from having at least three of the top 10 world class universities,” Mr Dowden explains, a reference to Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London.

“But we can’t allow seats of learning to become seats of infiltration. So we have to make sure that we have the right protections in place to ensure that, of course, we have free open academic debate, academic freedoms, people researching what they want to research into, we just [also must] have the right protections in place to protect against infiltration.”

Mr Dowden goes on to explain his fear. It is about UK university research in areas that will drive forward the frontiers of the future – quantum, artificial intelligence, bioengineering, nanotechnology – and whether that work is at risk from espionage.

He says: “There is no doubt that China and other countries look to the UK and look at the cutting-edge research capabilities that we have. And those cutting-edge capabilities are, of course, of interest both to commercial and to other sovereign states, and hostile states included in that. So what we need to [do is] be mindful.”

Mr Dowden is even more explicit later: “My objective in all of this is that we are as clear-eyed and hard-nosed about protecting our national security as the Chinese are clear-eyed and hard-nosed about protecting theirs.”

The warnings carry weight. In March, a British citizen in his late 20s who worked with senior Tory MPs with access to highly sensitive or classified material was arrested on suspicion of spying for Beijing. The researcher has denied the claims.

A second man, in his 30s, thought to be a university academic, was also arrested in March. The two men have been released on bail.

There are scores of joint research projects between UK and Chinese educational institutions. Scores of UK university projects too being funded in some form by money from China.

What is Mr Dowden’s message to universities now? Think twice before accepting such Chinese funding?

“I would say think twice about where the money is coming from and where the technology is going to,” Mr Dowden says. “And within that context, be mindful of the fact that we have identified China as the number-one threat to our economic security. But I don’t want this to be a conflict between universities and government. This is about working with them to address those challenges.”

He also has some existing powers, via the National Security and Investment Act, to step in. Would he do so if a critical bit of national infrastructure research in universities was at risk from Chinese joint work? “Yes, I am willing to do that,” Mr Dowden says with speed, in a clear warning shot.

Movement is expected in this area in the coming months. Proposals for how to better protect tech development at universities and overseas funding are being worked up.

Mr Dowden is also looking again at the National Security and Investment Act powers – a call for evidence is coming soon – with a view to strengthening the Government’s ability to act. Tighter rules on what technology can be exported are also expected, though details remain to be determined.

How deep fakes threaten the next election

Another, linked policy in Mr Dowden’s brief is artificial intelligence. Mr Sunak’s Government from the top down wants to make Britain a leader in this space, with a flagship international conference being hosted at Bletchley Park, once the home of British Enigma code-breaking, in November.

Mr Dowden gave a speech on the topic at the United Nations General Assembly in New York earlier this month, standing in for Mr Sunak, and has a stark warning.

“I don’t know whether you saw the deep fake of the Pope wearing a puffer jacket? That went round the world, right? Most people saw that before they realised it was a fake,” Mr Dowden says.

“We’ve got two general elections coming up in the UK and the US within the next 18 months. Undoubtedly, it will be the case that this kind of technology will play into them, so we need to guard against it.”

He spells out the election concern when prompted further: “You can think about how you could use deep fake to contrive the images that simply don’t exist. So just as the deep fake of the Pope wearing a puffer jacket sends a signal that the Pope is not sort of a wholly austere man, he’s somebody wearing some bling, basically.

“You can think if you wanted to, either as political parties or more likely malign third parties, you can interfere in our democratic processes by producing deep fake images that send a totally false [premise].

“Essentially it’s the same threats we faced in previous elections of misinformation and disinformation. But the application of AI and the creation of deep fakes to generate highly authentic misinformation and disinformation in a way that skews the public debate is something that we’ve got to be very mindful of. Which is why we’re exploring things like watermarks and all these other kinds of technologies.”

The potential scenarios conjured up is a worrying one – of damaging fake images or videos, perhaps of a political leader, conjured up by AI bots and viewed by millions of British voters before they can be disproved.

The potential solution Mr Dowden reveals is being worked on is also eye-catching: one where images and videos will have authenticity watermarks, something he says is being discussed with tech companies more widely than elections but could be applied in that setting.

Disinformation aside, the election is a daunting enough prospect for the Tories, as even the briefest of glances at the opinion polls shows.

Labour still generally leads by between 15 and 20 percentage points, with the vote perhaps just a year away – though there are signs of a bounce from Mr Sunak’s net zero move.

Mr Dowden’s office walls remind of the uncertainty of battles gone by. The Jacobite uprising was brutally crushed. Youthful Pitt the Younger ended up leading the country for almost 19 years.

Mr Sunak, another young prime minister, will hope revealing more of himself will boost his chances of emulating a little of the latter.