Over the course of the last few weeks a campaign has been launched in Britain spearheaded by the Guardian newspaper to ‘delegitimise’ the Brexit referendum result by alleging that it was Russian ‘meddling’ which caused it.
Thus we have seen a series of sensationalist reports insinuating that Arron Banks – the British millionaire who partly funded the Leave campaign – is being funded by Russia, and claims that Professor Mifsud – the London based academic referred to in the Papadopoulos indictment – may have met British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at a fundraising dinner arranged by another MP (Johnson denies it) and that Papadopoulos himself whilst a member of the Trump campaign met a British minister on the fringe of the UN General Assembly session in New York in September 2016.
There have also been insinuations that Russia launched a social media campaign to support Brexit, and even that Russian intelligence is behind the ‘black book’ setting out various sex allegations against Conservatives ministers and MPs which is currently circulating and which has led to the forced resignation of Britain’s Defence Secretary Michael Fallon.
The motive for this campaign was set out two day ago in an article by Mark Galeotti in the Guardian: to ‘delegitimise’ the Brexit referendum result
……. this may come at exactly the right time to let a British political elite increasingly alarmed about Brexit off the hook. There is public dismay at the slow progress of talks, but no clear mandate to reverse policy. Hard evidence of active, covert Russian interference would delegitimise the original vote, given the narrow margin of victory. Hardcore Brexiteers will risk looking like Putin’s “useful idiots”.
This would allow the government to re-run or even disregard the referendum without looking as if it is admitting a mistake or challenging the popular will. It would also smooth the way to allowing article 50 to be revoked or ignored with no penalty. (While the EU is formally committed to allowing the UK to change its mind, there are those in Brussels with more punitive intent.)
In reality the problem with all these allegations is that there is absolutely no evidence to support them. That is not however preventing the militantly anti-Brexit Guardian from taking them seriously, or from certain militantly anti-Brexit and anti-Corbyn Labour MPs such as Ben Bradshaw and Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson from doing the same.
The pattern of making wild and unsubstantiated allegations of a sinister conspiracy involving Russia without producing any evidence to support them in order to reverse an electoral outcome the establishment doesn’t like is one with which close followers of the US Russiagate conspiracy theory will be very familiar.
In the British case these claims are however far less likely to gain traction than they have done in the US.
Whilst in the US the entire political establishment and almost the entire news media were hostile during the Presidential election to Donald Trump and continue to be so to this day, in Britain there are enough members of the political establishment and enough support for Brexit in the media to ensure that claims of this sort will face far more intense scrutiny and meet with far greater skepticism than the analogous claims have done in the US.
Besides whilst Donald Trump opened himself up to suspicion of being a Kremlin tool by announcing during the election his wish for better relations with Russia, many of the leaders of the Leave campaign such as the Conservative cabinet minister Michael Gove are fierce critics of Russia, making any attempt to link the Leave campaign to Russia extremely difficult.
The Remain supporters who back this campaign anyway make a fundamental error in appearing to take it for granted that if the British change their minds on Brexit the EU will take them back. In reality many EU governments – long exasperated by British hostility to the EU – would be very loathe to have the British back, all the more so because they could not in that case be sure that the British would not at some future time vote to leave the EU again.
However what makes these allegations ultimately so astonishing is the way that they appear to assume that a covert Russian campaign to get Britain out of the EU – of which no evidence exists – was successful, whilst a very public, very overt US campaign to keep Britain in the EU – of which evidence exists in abundance – was unsuccessful.
Of the existence of the US campaign there can be no doubt since US President Barack Obama publicly called on the British to reject Brexit, travelling to Britain in order to do so. Other leaders of other Western countries including Chancellor Merkel of Germany called on the British to reject Brexit as well. Prime Minister Renzi of Italy did so in my presence (at the 2016 SPIEF conference in St. Petersburg). By contrast throughout the Brexit referendum campaign President Putin and the Russian government were careful to take no side at all, keeping their public comments to a minimum. For the record Putin has not said he supports Brexit to this day.
To suppose that a covert Russian campaign in support of Brexit could succeed in the teeth of the public opposition to Brexit of every single important Western government – including the US and German governments – credits the Russians with a degree of influence over the British public that is truly remarkable.
To suppose such a thing would incidentally also be an admission that the Russians have a better understanding of British public opinion than all of Britain’s major political parties (all of whom campaigned against Brexit) and all of the West’s most important governments do.
I do not credit the Russians with that degree of influence or with that level of understanding. I cannot that anyone in their senses would do so either.
Ultimately it reflects the crisis of confidence on the part of Britain’s elite that some of them now say they do.