“In the end, there was no smoking gun,” said The Times. “In fact, there wasn’t even a gun.” But the long-delayed report from Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee into Russian activity in the UK did reveal something that “was perhaps more troubling”. It found that UK intelligence agencies had not even bothered to investigate what steps Russia had been taking to disrupt recent UK elections. When asked about the intelligence on possible interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, MI5 provided “only six lines of text”. The committee concluded that the Government didn’t know if Russia had tried to influence the vote, because “it didn’t want to know”, said Stewart Hosie, its SNP member. The report also highlighted the extent to which a Russian elite closely linked to the Kremlin has been able to use its wealth to infiltrate the British establishment. Russia’s influence in the UK is the “new normal”, it found, and the Government has “badly underestimated” the response required.
“Was the Brexit referendum swung by Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” asked The Guardian. “Under Boris Johnson, we may never know.” While the US published a report into Russian interference in the 2016 election less than two months afterwards, Britain has been kept in the dark about “Moscow’s meddling”. This report is a year old; its publication has been blocked by No. 10, presumably because Johnson wanted to fend off demands for an inquiry on the subject. Given the stream of revelations about Putin’s “well-oiled campaign” to interfere in elections across the West, the nation is owed an accurate analysis of how Russian “trolls, hackers and provocateurs” might have influenced Britain’s biggest political choice in decades. The refusal to publish does look suspicious, said John Rentoul in The Independent. But the report itself is “harmless” to the PM. It was his predecessor, Theresa May, who took no interest in Russian intervention. The committee puts forward no case for how a large number of voters may have been swayed to vote for Brexit by Russia’s operation – consisting of the Russia Today TV channel, Sputnik news agency and “some bots and trolls on social media”.
Still, the report makes uncomfortable reading, said Fiona Hamilton in The Times. It reveals that by 2008-9, MI5 was so exclusively preoccupied with Islamist terror that only 3% of its resources were directed towards hostile state activity in Britain. The report also suggests that intelligence chiefs were reluctant to defend Britain’s democratic processes, regarding the issue as a “hot potato”. Most worrying of all is the issue of the “London laundromat”, said Stephen Gethins in The Courier: Russian oligarchs have been able to use London and its “industry of enablers” – lawyers, PR people, even members of the Lords – to launder money and build networks. Britain may have left it too late to untangle the web of Russian influence that permeates the political and business establishment.