What does an unpublished report have to say about Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum — and why is it still unpublished? Those are questions that opposition MPs posed to Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier today in the Commons, with Labour’s shadow foreign secretary exclaiming, “What on Earth do they have to hide?” The report has been in Johnson’s hands for three weeks, and its continued sequestration is handing Johnson’s political opponents a club with which to beat him as new elections approach:
Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, asked the government what it had “to hide” as she demanded that No 10 approved the intelligence and security committee’s dossier before parliament dissolves on Tuesday.
“We are bound to ask what is Downing Street so worried about,” Thornbery said. “They realise that this report will lead to other questions about the links between Russia and Brexit and the current leadership of the Tory party, which risks derailing their election campaign.”
Thornberry said the government was suppressing the report because it also raised awkward questions about the funding of the Tory party by Russian immigrants, and Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s controversial special adviser.
The delay could be strategic, but that assumes that the report is very bad news for Tories and Johnson. Time is running out on its publication, as the chair of the Commons intel/security committee explained. The UK intel community has approved the report’s release, but if it doesn’t come out before Parliament is prorogued next week for the election, it could take months to reconstitute the committee and plan a new release date, The Guardian notes:
The minister had been summoned to the despatch box to respond to an question from Dominic Grieve, the chairman of the intelligence and security committee, who told MPs that the Russia report had already been signed off by Britain’s intelligence agencies.
But he warned that if Johnson was to continue to sit on the report until the end of Tuesday, when parliament is dissolved, publication would be delayed for at least six months.
“If it is not laid before parliament ceases to sit, it is not capable of being laid until the committee is reformed, and in 2017 that took six months,” Grieve said. He also accused Downing Street of offering “bogus” explanation for the delay.
The “bogus” explanation offered by Michael Gove is that it just takes time to review these things … even perhaps longer than it takes to hold a general election:
Senior cabinet minister Michael Gove said the 50-page dossier compiled by the intelligence and security committee was “going through the appropriate procedure”.
“It will be published in due course,” Gove told BBC radio.
But he refused to say whether it would be published before the December 12 snap general election, which could decide when or even if Brexit will go ahead.
Er, nothing fishy about that, right? Ahem. Imagine having the Mueller report at the beginning of October 2020 and then hearing that William Barr wanted to take two or three months to review it before sending it to Congress. Even if it turned out to be a nothingburger, it would fuel all sorts of conspiracy theories and undermine whatever trust remains in the administration.
And it might just be a nothingburger anyway. BuzzFeed heard last week that it would reach a similar conclusion as Robert Mueller here in the US — that no evidence existed for Russia-collusion in the Brexit referendum either:
The UK’s intelligence agencies have found no evidence that the Russian state interfered in the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the 2017 general election, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the findings in an as-yet-unpublished report from Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.
One of the sources told BuzzFeed News the finding was categorical. …
The scope of the committee’s investigation was on the Russian “threat” to the UK, and it’s understood that direct Russian state interference in the outcome of the referendum and last election was just one of the areas assessed.
While sources say no evidence was found to substantiate that, the report could still produce evidence of other hostile acts or attempts to influence politics by Russia against the UK.
And therein might be one reason for a strategic delay. None other than Christopher Steele himself contributed to the investigation, as did American Bill Browder, who has jousted with the Putin regime for years. Browder called the delay “disturbing,” and openly wondered why it had not yet been released:
This is disturbing. I gave evidence to the U.K. parliament’s Intelligence and Security committee about Russian operations in the U.K. with the assistance of British nationals. I was told yesterday that my testimony would be released this week as part of the report. https://t.co/xfKcsmoBcv
— Bill Browder (@Billbrowder) October 31, 2019
Presumably, the report might not be too complimentary to the David Cameron-Tory government at the time, even if BuzzFeed’s sources turn out to be accurate. If that’s the case, though, Johnson probably should have ripped off the Band-Aid and dealt with the fallout quickly. In the heat of Brexit, that story would have quickly dissipated — or at least one would hope so, although their American cousins are still obsessing over Russia-collusion conspiracy theories months later.
There is another strategic possibility. It might just be that Johnson thinks the report will make the Tories look better than expected and wants to build up Labour’s public conspiracy-theorizing to a fever pitch in order to generate the biggest backfire possible. That’s … a risky strategy, as conspiracy theories tend to remain stubbornly resistant to actual facts. As his American cousins could explain at length.