8 January 2020
Probably not; or, if it does, only with further passages blacked out. I blogged on the suppression of the ISC’s Russia Report by Britain’s Conservative Party prime minister Boris Johnson last autumn (2019). It will be recalled that it had been completed in March, was cleared for publication by the intelligence community by early October, delivered to No. 10 on 17 October, and expected by the committee to be signed off by the prime minister within the usual ten days. But despite a well-earned reputation for being uninterested in detail, Boris Johnson insisted on the need for much more time to study it and eventually announced that it would not be released before the general election on 12 December, his campaign for success in which was Brexit-themed. The strong suspicion was that he feared publication of the report would damage that campaign: first, because it would for the first time have authoritatively drawn public attention to the possibility that Russian money and cyber warfare had swung the 2016 Brexit referendum in favour of leaving the EU; and second, because it would have shown that a great deal of Russian money had flowed into the coffers of the membership-light Conservative Party (the report is said to name nine wealthy Russian donors to the party).
Surprise, surprise, with the election safely won, on the very next day, 13 December, Johnson earnestly communicated to the ISC Secretariat his astonishing discovery that there was ‘no material in the Committee’s Russia Report which, if published, would be prejudicial to the discharge of the functions of the security and intelligence Agencies, and that therefore the Report may be published once the new Committee is appointed.’ In the evening of the same day the self-styled ‘people’s prime minister’ celebrated his victory at ‘a caviar-fuelled Christmas party in London hosted by former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny.’
Why should no-one be reassured by Boris Johnson’s statement that ‘the Report may be published once the new Committee is appointed’? Aside from the fact that nothing he says can be trusted, the worry is prompted by that little word ‘may’. He has not ordered the new ISC committee to publish the Russia Report; he has merely indicated that it can if it wants to. And whether it wants to or not will depend on its nine members, and guess who appoints them, albeit in consultation with the leader of the opposition? The prime minister, of course. And with Johnson’s large majority in the new House of Commons, any new committee is bound to have five Conservative Party members, including the chair (chosen by the committee), or four plus a pliable member of a minor party or crossbench peer. Furthermore, in the light of the experience of recent years it could well be the middle of 2020 before the new ISC is appointed. It takes time even for half-way competent prime ministers to nominate committee members, presumably because they need extra-careful security clearance and delicate negotiations are required to achieve the customary cross-party balance. Following the 2017 general election, as the then chair of the ISC, Dominic Grieve, told the House of Commons, it took almost six months to appoint a new committee.
The Russia Report can still embarrass the Johnson government, which as a result will almost certainly stall the process of appointing the new ISC for as long as possible. There is also no guarantee that if and when a new committee is appointed it will publish the report without further sanitising it – or publish it at all. And Dominic Grieve, the most redoubtable parliamentary critic of Boris Johnson from inside his own party, will no longer be in a position to goad it in the House of Commons because – having forfeited party support and having to stand as an independent – unfortunately he lost his seat in the general election. There is also the distinct possibility that the government will take the opportunity of its large majority to pass new legislation to hobble the ISC further, and use the alleged need for this as an excuse to block the appointment of a new committee under the existing legislation. In that case, the Russia Report will probably not be read for at least another 30 years, unless a mutinous civil servant decides to leak it. Therein is to be found a glimmer of hope. Thanks in large part to the well-advertised hostility to the civil service of Boris Johnson’s Svengali, Dominic Cummings, their numbers must be growing by the day.
Postscript 12 June 2020
As feared, disgracefully the new ISC has still not been appointed by the Johnson government and therefore publication of the Russia Report is still nowhere near in sight. It has just been blasted for this behaviour by the non-partisan and highly respected Hansard Society (see here); see also the authoritative account of the Report’s fate by Joanna Dawson in ‘The Intelligence and Security Committee’, House of Commons Library Briefing Paper Number 02178, 5 February 2020