British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MIKHAIL SVETLOV
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MIKHAIL SVETLOV

London — British MPs criticised their government on Tuesday for failing to look into any Russian meddling into UK politics, particularly the divisive 2016 Brexit referendum, despite evidence of the country posing a credible threat.

A long-awaited report by parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) had been expected to shed light on possible Kremlin interference in the landmark vote that saw Britain leave the EU.

But MPs said they were unable to come to any firm conclusions as the current government or its predecessor had not ordered any investigation because of an apparent “lack of curiosity”.

“There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum,” MPs said after the report commissioned to look into alleged Russian meddling was finally published, nearly 15 months after it was completed.

“Nobody wanted to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole. This is in stark contrast to the US response of reports of interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

“No matter how politically awkward or potentially embarrassing, there should have been an assessment ... and there must now be one, and the public must be told the results.”

In response, the government said it had seen “no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum” and denied acting too slowly to the threat.

Russia remains a “top national security priority”, it added.

The publication of the report was being keenly watched because of the Brexit campaign and result, which saw 52% of Britons vote to end decades of EU membership.

The issue has dominated British politics ever since, leading to years of parliamentary deadlock that was finally broken by Boris Johnson’s huge election win in December 2019.

Diplomatic ties between London and Moscow have been fraught since 2006 when President Vladimir Putin was blamed for the radiation poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko.

The Kremlin was also accused of being behind the attempted murder of double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, southwest England, in 2018 using a weapons-grade nerve agent.

Last week, a joint intelligence report by Britain, the US and Canada claimed that Russian hackers tried to meddle in the 2019 election and were trying to steal coronavirus vaccine research from labs in the three countries.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov rejected claims of Russian meddling in UK politics as “groundless”, and said the report contained only “ephemeral accusations”.

“Russia has never interfered in the electoral process of any country in the world, not in the US, not in Great Britain, nor in other countries,” he told reporters.

‘Lack of curiosity’

MPs made clear their frustration with being unable to draw firmer conclusions, some describing themselves as “shocked” and “baffled” that the perceived Russian threat was not taken seriously.

That could further fuel claims from Johnson’s opponents about a lack of political will at the heart of government to reveal the extent of Russian involvement and influence in Britain.

Critics have said the prime minister's apparent reluctance to publish the report was because it could lay bare donations from wealthy Russians to his ruling Conservative party.

The report said there was “credible open source commentary” suggesting Russia tried to influence campaigns in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

And it said that the government should have made it a priority to “mitigate the risk” for the Brexit vote and protect the democratic process.

The MPs said the government “took its eye off the ball” and “badly underestimated” its response to the threat, but stopped short of saying its actions were “deliberate”.

Russian influence in Britain is “the new normal”, with wealthy oligarchs close to Putin accepted and well-integrated into UK business and society, they added.

“This level of integration ... means that any measures now being taken by the government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation,” they said.

Johnson took over last July from Theresa May, who stepped down after failing to secure parliamentary backing for her Brexit divorce deal with Brussels.

The ISC’s investigation began in November 2017 over concerns that Russia may have tried to influence the Brexit vote as well as the 2016 US presidential election.

At the time of the referendum, May accused Russia of “planting fake stories” to “sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions”.

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