From David Maughan Brown in York: Smoking guns

July 25th

So the Intelligence and Security Committee’s long and eagerly awaited Russia report did not contain the ‘smoking gun’ our cliché-loving journalists might have been either slightly apprehensive about (the right-wing majority) or hoping for (the very small proportion who don’t like Boris and the Tories one little bit.)  A ‘smoking gun’ was always unlikely at both a literal and metaphorical level.  At the literal level the Russians moved on from six-shooters long ago: their preferred author when it comes to getting interesting ideas about how to kill people is much more likely to be John Le Carré than Stephen King, and the preferred method for whacking the target more likely to be a scent-bottle full of novichok, or a few drops of polonium in a cup of tea, than a Smith and Wesson.  It was unlikely at the metaphorical level because unearthing a weapon of any description that has been used with ill intent tends to involve wanting to find it, and that means having to look for it.   The Intelligence and Security Committee is not in the business of hunting for weapons; its job is to analyse what they were being used for once they have been found.  So someone else has to find them and it has been transparently obvious ever since the Brexit referendum that the last thing the Conservative government wanted was an investigation into how the fraction of the electorate that voted to leave the EU was persuaded to do so.

Nobody was tasked with finding out if Russia had been trying to meddle in our democratic processes, and a blind eye was turned to all pointers to what might have been happening, such as the odd 145,000 or so anti-EU messages allegedly posted on social media by Russian bots in the 48 hours leading up to the referendum, so the committee’s report was always bound to have been unable to come to any substantive conclusions.   Boris and company, having engineered it, obviously knew that.  They knew precisely what was in the report and knew that it didn’t contain a ‘smoking gun.’  Which raises the interesting question as to why they should have bothered to stop it from being published before the General Election, in the face of considerable noisy flak from their parliamentary opposition.   And, following-on from that, why would Boris have deliberately delayed the Intelligence and Security Committee from holding any meetings at all for more than six months after the general election?  Could that delay have been deliberately designed to generate enough of a Brexit-related furore around the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report to distract attention from whatever else was going on that they really did need to cover up?   Was the ISC report just a decoy?

Even by the government’s own analysis, leaving the EU can only be seriously damaging for the UK’s economy.  It will, equally obviously, threaten the integrity of the UK which the Conservative and Unionist Party pretends to hold so dear.   Our cabinet cannot be so stupid that they don’t recognise those facts, or appreciate that trading under World Trade Organisation terms will make just as much of a nonsense of their cherished ‘independence’ as they claim trading on hated EU terms does.  So I can only conclude that what this is all about is personal wealth aggrandisement from Brexit in general and, more immediately, from the flow of Russian money into UK in particular.   The way the  ‘Leave’ campaign was conducted made it abundantly clear that the people now leading us into an economic wasteland wouldn’t recognise an ethic if it took its face-mask off, ignored social distancing, and introduced itself to them at a cocktail party.

If Robert Jenrick’s dinner side-dish of £12k into party coffers was a down-payment on a  £1 billion housing agreement with Richard Desmond, what was the value of the deal for which the wife of the former Putin minister, Lubov Chernukhin, was prepared to pay £160k, ostensibly just to play tennis with our fat (by his own admission) prime minister?  Boris was clearly seen for some reason to be likely to be more susceptible to female than male charms.   Ms Chernukhin was clearly so ready to take one for the team that she was also prepared not just to endure a dinner with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, a less than enthralling prospect, but even to pay £30k for the experience.   The same question needs answering there , and was it just coincidence that it happened to be our Defence Secretary who was the lucky beneficiary of her company? 

Boris and his already wealthy chums were bound to welcome any help they could get, from any source however shady, where the referendum and election were concerned, but is it possible that anger at the blatant failure on the part of government to take any interest whatever in whether external forces had influenced the outcomes was deliberately fomented to divert attention from, and investigation into, precisely whose pockets Russian money is flowing into even as it goes to swell the Conservative Party’s coffers?

From David Maughan Brown in York: Cunning Plans

July 19th

I concluded my entry on July 10th by saying: ‘I am certainly not going to feel that my security will be in any way enhanced by knowing that Chris Grayling will be chairing our national Intelligence and Security Committee.’   After successfully managing to stall the operation of this important committee for six months via the simple expedient of avoiding getting round to nominating its Tory membership, it had become clear to Cummings and Johnson that they would have to succumb to the inevitable and allow it to start functioning – but only on their own terms.   Baldrickian cunning plan B was to make sure that whatever it is that they are so anxious to keep hidden would stay under wraps via the appointment of one of their less intellectually gifted Brexiteer yes-men to the chair of the committee.   The constitution of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which, uniquely, sees the chair being independently elected by the other members of the committee, would be no obstacle.  When had a mere principle stood in the way of either Johnson or Cummings getting what he wanted? 

Alas, even Machiavelli and Rasputin must have had their off days: their cunning plans, unlike those of the A Team, will sometimes not have come together.   There will have been days when, distracted by side-issues like an outbreak of the plague or the after effects of a bad batch of vodka, or perhaps even concerns that their eye-sight might be failing or that a recent dalliance might come to light, they allowed themselves to be outmaneuvered.  So to Tory consternation and unexpected schadenfreude for the rest of us, as it turned out, Grayling wasn’t elected after all.   Julian Lewis, a Tory right-wing Brexiteer who is obviously less biddable than his Tory right-wing Brexiteer counterpart Grayling, was elected instead, thanks to collusion with the Labour members of the committee.   This coup put paid to both parts of the Cummings/Johnson cunning plan in one fell swoop.  Not only did they not end up with their ventriloquist’s dummy in the chair, but, potentially even more problematic, they have been landed with a chair who actually knows something about Intelligence and Security.  Lewis has been a member of the Defence Select Committee since 2010, and a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee since 2014.   So the bit of the plan that involved having Grayling make the same mess of chairing, and thereby discrediting, the Intelligence and Security Committee as he has of every government department he has ever been put in charge of disappeared out of the window at the same time.

In normal circumstances arch manipulators would tend to keep quiet about it if they had tried illegitimately and unsuccessfully to manoeuver their stooges into the chair of a committee they shouldn’t have been interfering with.   They would go back into their darkened room and concoct cunning plan C.   But that is all too evidently not the Johnson and Cummings bullyboy style.  They clearly don’t give a damn that the world knows they have been involved in skull-duggery, or even that they have been outmaneuvered in the dirty tricks department, provided it also knows that they have exacted appropriate revenge.   Nobody had better try to do anything like that again, particularly not if it involves colluding with members of the opposition.  No doubt regretting that their whips are not allowed to take their titles literally, they have had to content themselves with having Julian Lewis thrown out of the Conservative party.   As a shining example of how to ‘Take back Control’ that may yet prove something of a double-edged sword:  while it demonstrates a ruthless vindictiveness towards any party member who might have the temerity to cross them, and could serve its purpose as a deterrent, it simultaneously ensures that the Chair of this key committee is genuinely independent of any political party and that the long delayed report on Russian interference in the general election will see the light of day very soon.   It might yet prove not to have been a particularly brilliant tactical move on the part of a Prime Minister who has a lot to hide, extending from the number of children he has fathered to who knows what else, to alienate and antagonise the chair of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee and, in the process, deprive his party of its majority on the committee.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction and Reality

July 10th

Writing fiction has been one of the things I have tried my hand at since I retired in 2013.  I spent much of the first year writing a cathartic historical novel, subsequently published as Despite the Darkness, based in part on our experience during the apartheid years of being harassed by the South African Police’s Special Branch who objected to what I was writing and what their spies were reporting back to them about my lectures and speeches.  I then wasted three years going through the motions of getting a literary agent to take the novel on and try to sell it; getting tired of waiting for him to do so; and finally deciding to self-publish after all.  During the last of the three years I wrote a sequel that is currently with the publishers.  People have asked me whether I will be writing another one, to which the answer is ‘probably not’ – not just because I am too busy doing other things, even in lockdown, but because these days fiction has grave difficulty in staying ahead of reality.  In plotting the kind of fiction I write one always has to be asking oneself ‘is that plausible?’  With historical fiction the question becomes ‘could that really ever have happened?’   In recent times too much has happened which, had one been writing a novel, one would have had to discard as simply being far too implausible.

The enjoyment of literature usually depends to some extent on what Coleridge referred to as ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’.   How many people, to take a current example, would willingly suspend their disbelief when reading a political novel if the author were to cast Chris Grayling in the role of Chair of the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee?  The response would be likely to involve a heavy sigh, a ‘Get Real!’ (that’s the bowdlerised version), and the novel being put aside in favour of something less wildly implausible.  

It would be doing a disservice to the military to draw any parallel with the old saw which holds that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron.   Chris Grayling’s record as a cabinet minister could be deemed to have demonstrated the opposite of the Midas touch: everything he touched turned to dust, but it wasn’t gold dust.  Grayling is probably best known for awarding a £14 million contract to a start-up company, Seaborne Freight, to ship medical supplies to the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit.  The fact that the company had no ships and no port contract, and a set of legal terms and conditions that had been cut and pasted from a pizza delivery company, was not seen as any kind of hindrance to the award of the contract.  Nor, apparently, is his copy-book seen to have been blotted by the mere £33million that had to be paid out to Eurotunnel for the breach of public procurement rules that was involved in the award of that contract.

Grayling was transport secretary in 2018 when the railway timetable debacle took place, and was criticized by the rail regulator for not scrutinising plans for the change-over carefully enough.  His ideological compulsion towards shrinkage of the State led him to the disastrous part-privatisation of probation services that has recently had to be rescinded.  But his ministerial record is not one of consistently benign incompetence.  Some of his policies have been malign to the point of vindictiveness.  One of the nastier and stupider ones was his introduction, as Minister of Justice, of a ban on prisoners being allowed to receive books from friends and relatives, and his imposition of a limit on the number of books prisoners were allowed.  This was found to be unlawful by the high court in 2015.  I think I am right in saying  that every single one of Grayling’s major policy innovations has had to be reversed by his successors in the various departments unfortunate enough to have fallen into his clutches. The Guardian reported last year that decisions Grayling had made while heading those departments had had been estimated by Labour to have cost the taxpayer £2.7 billion.  Who would believe such hopeless incompetence if anyone were to put all that into a novel?

All this begs the question, of course, as to why on earth Boris Johnson (read Dominic Cummings) would want to nominate a man with a record like that to chair the UK’s parliamentary Intelligence and Security committee.  It isn’t as if, in the age of Novichok, Huawei and Russian interference in elections, intelligence and security aren’t important.  There seem to be two plausible reasons.  One would be that Johnson (read Cummings – always) wants a yes-man Brexiteer at the helm of a committee that has traditionally been independent and tried to avoid party political allegiances.  The other would be that as part of his strategy to disrupt the Westminster ‘establishment’ Cummings would like to discredit and undermine one of its key parliamentary committees.  You, quite literally, couldn’t make it up.  But, speaking for myself, and leaving ‘intelligence’ out of it for obvious reasons, I am certainly not going to feel that my security will be in any way enhanced by knowing that Chris Grayling will be chairing our national Intelligence and Security Committee.