We need an investigation into Russia’s role in the Brexit vote

Published by The i paper (13th November, 2017)

Every now and then, observing the strange state of global events, we must pause to remind ourselves we are witnessing reality, not some weird television show. The latest example came at the weekend when the leader of the United States, a man following in the footsteps of Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Reagan, said he trusted Vladimir Putin’s denials of Russian involvement in last year’s presidential election.

Never mind that Putin is a proven liar, as seen over his invasion of Crimea, let alone the corrupt and repressive ruler of an aggressive rival power. Nor that US intelligence agencies have concluded Russia supported Donald Trump’s ascent into power, while technology firms admit finding evidence to support their case. ‘He said he didn’t meddle,’ said Trump after meeting Putin in Vietnam. ‘You can only ask so many times.’

Trump’s preference for Putin’s word over intelligence painstakingly gathered by his security services is highly political, a desperate attempt to deflect rising heat over his team’s links to Moscow. Yet at least there is official investigation and debate in Washington over attempts to attack democracy with a campaign of dezinformatsiya. Contrast that with the near-silence in Britain over interference in Brexit.

It would be surprising if Russia had not sought to meddle in our referendum given Putin’s contempt for key Western alliances such as the European Union and Nato. His nation has been developing disinformation tactics since the Cold War and with an ex-KGB man in the Kremlin, adapted them after seeing how social media offered a soft underbelly for democracy. Moscow has stirred up dissent in other European countries by fanning fake news on migrants and funding far-right groups.

Now we are starting to scent serious efforts may have taken place to influence the Brexit vote – an unexpected result won by narrow margin. A City University team discovered an army of 13,500 fake Twitter accounts disappeared shortly after the vote, having posted almost 65,000 messages over a month with clear slant towards the Leave campaign. US television network CNN found trolls linked to the Russian government posted a tidal wave of pro-Brexit and anti-EU messages on voting day.

Wired magazine took a snapshot of accounts confirmed to Congress as Russian-backed and found they spread bile linked to Brexit along with slurs against migrants and Muslims. Typical was an alleged ‘proud Texan and American patriot’ who tweeted ‘I hope UK after #Brexitvote will start to clear their land from Muslim invasion’ to 16,826 followers. The Mail on Sunday spoke to a whistleblower from an infamous St Petersburg ‘troll factory’ who confirmed they were ordered to spread discord and publish pro-Leave posts.

Damian Collins, Tory chairman of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, says Russian organisations sought to ‘target and influence’ voters. He has asked social media firms to provide details of relevant accounts as part of an inquiry into fake news. Yet Boris Johnson, our embarrassment of a foreign secretary given the post after leading the Brexit campaign, insists he is unaware of any Russian meddling. Even for such a slippery character, this was a bizarre claim.

There seems to be a clear-cut case that Putin ordered his spooks and allies to push Brexit, spread discord and stir hatred. Then there is the puzzling wealth of Aaron Banks, the insurance tycoon with a Russian wife who pumped £9.6m into anti-Brussels groups such as Ukip and the Leave.EU campaign. A long, forensic article on Open Democracy examined his business dealings, concluding it was a mystery he could give away so much cash. ‘There is no doubt that Banks did more than most to make Brexit happen – the question is, how could he afford it?’ it asked.

Now the Electoral Commission has disclosed it is investigating Banks’s donations to see whether he broke campaign rules and examining ‘the true source’ of loans and donations. This is serious stuff given the influence bought by this bumptious man. Banks was also among the first Britons to meet Trump after his election triumph – pictured in the property magnate’s gilded penthouse with their mutual friend Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader who openly admits admiration for Putin.

In another twist to this disconcerting saga, Farage was caught earlier this year slipping in to the Ecuadorian embassy where Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was hiding from deportation to Sweden over rape allegations. Wikileaks published the Hillary Clinton emails – almost certainly hacked by Russians – that helped Trump reach the White House. ‘I never discuss where I go or who I see,’ said Farage. Yet usually he adores the spotlight and says anything for publicity.

Labour’s former minister Ben Bradshaw argues the government has a duty to treat this issue as seriously as Washington by launching a judge-led inquiry into ‘dark money’ and Russian manipulation. He is right. We need to know the true facts for the sake of national security and well-being. Theresa May must put her country first – even though there are also questions over £425,000 from a secret source to her allies the Democratic Unionist Party that was strangely spent in London on Brexit promotion.

We do not know what influence the Russians had on the referendum result, if any. We do know, however, that Brexit has left our nation horribly divided, undermining the union and fuelling nationalism while opening up fissures between young and old, rich and poor, north and south. The ballot weakened both Britain and Europe. No doubt Putin is delighted. For the health of our nation, is vital we find out if our democracy has fallen victim to foreign intervention.

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