Russia report 'reads more like a script from Yes, Minister' than a serious security report, expert analysis claims

A Yorkshire academic has said a much-anticipated report into alleged Russian interference in UK politics “reads more like a script from Yes, Minister” than a serious security report.

The heavily-redacted Intelligence and Security Committee’s report released today noted that there had been widespread allegations that Russia sought to influence voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum but it would be “difficult – if not impossible” to assess whether any such attempts had been successful.

But the committee said the Government was “slow to recognise the existence of the threat”.

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And it said the intelligence agencies and ministers should have been aware of the risk of Russian interference as a result of “credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum” in 2014.

University of Sheffield's Professor Matthew Flinders.

However Matthew Flinders, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, said: "In 55 pages that include 175 redactions, the only thing this report clarifies is that nobody seems to know what Russia might - or might not - have done.

“In places the report reads more like a script from Yes, Minister than a long-awaited and serious security report.

“‘We don’t know what we don’t know because no one has bothered to ask’ might be a succinct summary of the report, which is not the fault of the Intelligence and Security Committee as much as it seems to be an almost complete vacuum at the heart of Whitehall and Westminster.”

He said the report was therefore “damaging and embarrassing at a number of levels”

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He said: “For the Government, the fact that the report has been delayed does not look good and brings with it a whiff of arrogance; for Brexit it doesn’t really provide any evidence of anything; but more critically it risks undermining public confidence in the integrity of British democracy.”

And he said it was “another example of bungling” for Boris Johnson, “not just in terms of not asking the key questions of the key people, but then bungling in trying to delay and control the publication of the report”.

Publication of the committee’s report was postponed by Boris Johnson’s decision to call a general election and the subsequent delays in setting up the ISC in the new parliament.

The report and a press summary were prepared by the previous incarnation of the committee in the last parliament.

Prof Flinders added: “This will fall on the back of the crude attempt to shoe-horn Chris Grayling into the chairmanship of the committee which, in turn, risks Boris being seen as not respecting the House of Commons in quite the way that all Prime Ministers - irrespective of the size of their majority - need to.”

Prof Flinders said: “The big issue that is showcased in this report is the complete confusion of the accountability and oversight structures in relation to cyber-security. No one minister carries the can for the topic and this might explain how and why what the ISC calls ‘a hot potato’ appears to have fallen between the cracks."

The committee said Russian influence in the UK is “the new normal” as successive governments have welcomed oligarchs with open arms.

There were Russians with “very close links” to Vladimir Putin who were “well integrated into the UK business, political and social scene – in ‘Londongrad’ in particular”.

The ISC said it was a priority to “mitigate the risk, and ensure that, where hostile activity is uncovered, the proper tools exist to tackle it at source and to challenge the impunity of Putin-linked elites”.

The committee called for the intelligence community to carry out a full assessment of potential Russian meddling in the 2016 referendum.

“Even if the conclusion of any such assessment were that there was minimal interference, this would nonetheless represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe,” the committee said.

ISC member and SNP MP Stewart Hosie said: “There has been no assessment of Russian interference in the EU referendum and this goes back to nobody wanting to touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.”

Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said: “It is extraordinary that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, took the political decision last October ahead of the general election to block the publication of this important report that systematically goes through the threat Russia poses to the UK’s national security.

“The report is very clear that the Government has under-estimated the response required to Russia and it is imperative we learn the lessons from the mistakes that have been made.”

In a 20-page response to the report, the Government rejected the call for an assessment of alleged Russian activity during the Brexit referendum.

It said: “We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU Referendum.”

The Government also denied the suggestion it had “badly underestimated” the Russian threat.

“The Government has long recognised there is an enduring and significant threat posed by Russia to the UK and its allies, including conventional military capabilities, disinformation, illicit finance, influence operations, and cyber-attacks,” the official response to the report said.

“As such, Russia remains a top national security priority for the Government.”