Ask no questions, tell no lies – the government’s approach to Russian interference

© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor
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The long-awaited report on Russian interference in the UK has been published, with some pretty extraordinary and damning findings. It confirmed that Russia did try to influence the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, but that even after this the government only “belatedly realised the level of threat” posed. On the 2016 Brexit vote, the document described how the committee had “not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference”, and its members accused the government of having “actively avoided” looking for evidence of meddling. So, the government didn’t find any problems with the Brexit referendum… But only because it didn’t look. And while this might be the way I handle my own personal finances, it’s probably not the best way to approach national security.

The government has rejected the claim, along with any suggestion that the UK has been complacent in its approach to Russia. It also rejected the report’s call for a new investigation into the referendum. Reacting to the findings, Labour slammed the government for “deep systemic failings” in its approach to national security. Shadow Europe minister Catherine West has written for LabourList this morning on the need for the government to “make amends for its weak handling of the Russian threat”, and called for the introduction of legislation to “clean up the murky dealings of business and politics”. The party has tabled an urgent parliamentary question for today.

Meanwhile, Labour’s lawyers read out an apology in court this morning and agreed to pay “substantial damages” in the libel case relating to a Panorama documentary. The case involves seven of eight former Labour staffers who appeared on a programme last year about antisemitism within the party, as well as BBC journalist John Ware. They had accused the party of attacking their reputations. A Labour spokesperson at the time had described the whistleblowers as “disaffected officials who have always opposed Corbyn’s leadership, worked to actively undermine it and have both personal and political axes to grind”. The party today said it “unreservedly withdraws” these allegations.

The Guardian has reported that both the former Labour leader and the former director of comms Seumas Milne have taken legal advice about the settlement and apology, and that “senior figures are considering routes for a future challenge to the settlement”. Keir Starmer reportedly reminded national executive committee (NEC) members yesterday that all candidates in the leadership race earlier this year had pledged to settle the case – and told them it’s the right thing to do both morally and financially. But the settlement remains controversial within Labour. For some on the left, the leaked report into the party’s handling of antisemitism complaints makes a real difference. The dossier, which emerged after the leadership election, described a “hyper-factional” environment in the party and alleged that disciplinary cases were mishandled in order to undermine Corbyn’s leadership.

That internal document is of course subject to its own investigation. A four-person panel, chaired by Martin Forde QC, was appointed to look into the allegations in the report, its commissioning and how it was put into the public domain, and the culture within the party. But constituency party NEC representatives yesterday wrote to Forde and the leadership requesting clarification in response to the panel’s call for evidence, in which it appeared to suggest that the inquiry “intends to focus on paragraph three of the terms of reference” – the bit about party culture. The reps have called for the inquiry to also cover the contents of the report. A Labour spokesperson told LabourList that “an independent investigation into the circumstances, contents and release” of the report is taking place. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.

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