As Boris Johnson is leading Britain’s first government of pundits, “a gobocracy”, if you like, it is worth repeating Humbert Wolfe’s scathing poem on the press: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist,/ thank God! the British journalist./ But, seeing what the man will do/ unbribed, there’s no occasion to.”
In a gobocracy, there’s no need to become too conspiratorial about why a prime minister betrays his country. Put a Telegraph columnist in charge, throw in Michael Gove from the Times and Dominic Cummings from Vote Leave’s propaganda arm, and their bottomless cynicism and instinctive charlatanism will bring ruin with or without foreign assistance.
If you doubt that hostile foreign powers were happy to assist Britain into decline, I recommend Shadow State, Luke Harding’s dazzling and meticulous account of Russian interference in American and British politics, which is out this week. One scene haunts me.
Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador to Britain from 2011, returned home in 2019. Putin made him a member of the Order of Alexander Nevsky and president of his Diplomatic Academy. Yakovenko explained to his admiring colleagues that the state was rewarding him for smashing the Brits to the ground. “It will be a long time before they rise again.” Mission accomplished, he could enjoy the honours bestowed by a grateful dictator.
Foreign subversion of the 2016 presidential election and Brexit referendum, and doubtless of the 2020 US presidential election too, is great-power rather than ideological politics. Russia wants to weaken rivals by spreading chaos by whatever means come to hand. If you think the bitterness caused by post-imperial decline is bad in Britain, you should see Russia. Deprived of its east European colonies after the fall of communism, Putin’s power hunger and aggression are symptoms of one of the worst cases of post-imperial vindictiveness on record. Russia will exploit any force that weakens its opponents.
For a while, the far left seemed the weapon it would use to weaken Britain. Jeremy Corbyn, that most useful of idiots, ducked blaming Russia for the Salisbury poisonings, the only chemical weapons attack Britain has suffered, which gives you a measure of Russian hostility. Putin welcomed Corbyn’s consigliere Seumas Milne to Black Sea resorts. But Russia soon recognised that the true danger to the west comes from the far right. Britain’s Brexit movement was far right in the sense that it surpassed Le Pen in France or Salvini in Italy in its Europhobia and was the only political force in Europe with a realistic chance of partitioning the EU. As long as the EU remained strong, Russia could abandon hope of dominating its former territories or lifting the EU sanctions imposed after its invasion of Ukraine.
The level of detail about Russian intelligence operations in the UK that Harding has amassed is breathtaking. Yakovenko’s embassy charged Sergey Nalobin with establishing a front organisation, Conservative Friends of Russia, which welcomed Carrie Symonds, now the mother of Johnson’s sixth or maybe seventh child, to its garden parties, and Matthew Elliott, who went on to run Vote Leave. I knew about the embassy’s contacts with Nigel Farage and his sidekicks Andy Wigmore and Arron Banks, thanks to the journalism of our own Carole Cadwalladr. But Harding shows the sheer scale of Leave.EU contacts with Alexander Udod, who was expelled as a Russian spy by Theresa May’s government.
You misunderstand how spies succeed if you take the thought away that Johnson is a Russian stooge. In his mind, he is anything but. The only time I have heard him publicly admit to a fault came during a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in 2018. Johnson said the biggest mistake he made in his career was thinking it was possible to “engage with Putin” and that turned out to be “a fool’s errand”. He now wants to shift British aid from Africa to Ukraine and the Balkans to make them less “vulnerable to Russian meddling”.
To which the fair-minded observer can only reply, so what? Russia did its job in 2016. Brexit is now making Britain an irrelevant country and neither Russia nor anyone else now cares overmuch about what we do in the Balkans. We have become like a city with a corrupt police force, whose criminals know they won’t be investigated. However good their reporting, it is shameful that we have to rely on Harding and Cadwalladr. MI6 and MI5 are meant to protect our democratic process from its enemies. Yet the May and Johnson administrations refused to allow them to fully investigate Russian involvement in the 2016 referendum for fear that what they found might taint the Leave victory. If you want the concise reason why Johnson won’t release the Commons intelligence and security committee’s report on Russia, this is it. What applies to Brexit applies to Trump. Harding reveals that May and Johnson ran as far as they could from Christopher Steele’s evidence of Russian support for Trump in 2016. The ex-MI6 agent’s dossier was too hot. The risk of offending Trump was too great.
Johnson, Cummings and Gove did not need Russia to tell them to break up the EU. The fantasies of the gobocracy drove them forward. They will ensure that, after the pandemic has hit us, the economy will suffer the follow-up punch of a hard or no-deal Brexit. Politically, Brexit stripped Britain’s ruling class of talent at a moment when talent was most needed. Johnson purged his party of two former chancellors of the exchequer and a former justice, education and international development secretary because they would not accept no deal. The sole qualification for being in his cabinet is loyalty to the boss. I have asked able Tory backbenchers why they weren’t running the pandemic response from government and been told that Johnson shunned them because he feared they would insist on a decent deal with the EU.
Russia did what it could to wreck Britain. But it never needed to bribe or twist Boris Johnson. Seeing what the man would do, there was no occasion to.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist