The Daily Telegraph

President will be kicking himself if he missed all this in-fighting

- By Michael Deacon

It isn’t known whether Vladimir Putin happened to catch the intelligen­ce and security committee’s news conference on the Russia report. But if he did, he would surely have enjoyed it very much. He would have been highly entertaine­d, for example, by the teeth-gnashing frustratio­n of its members.

First at Boris Johnson, for delaying the publicatio­n of their report so long – and then at the Government in general, for its alleged reluctance to investigat­e Russian interferen­ce in the

Brexit referendum. Frankly, the committee sounded angrier with the Government than with the Kremlin.

An investigat­ion that was intended to expose the wrongdoing of Russia had apparently ended up exposing the failings of Britain instead. To Putin, this spectacle would doubtless have seemed richly gratifying: yet more signs of British divisions deepening, trust weakening, resentment­s intensifyi­ng. If he missed it, he’ll be kicking himself.

The news conference was presented by Julian Lewis, the MP who was stripped of the Tory whip last week after being elected chairman of the committee ahead of the Government’s preferred candidate, Chris Grayling. (Another likely source of amusement for Putin; he must have been sorely tempted to release a statement expressing concern about No10’s interferen­ce in a democratic vote.)

Dr Lewis left the talking to the two members sitting either side of him: Kevan Jones (the Labour MP for North Durham) and Stewart Hosie (the SNP for Dundee East). Both were visibly fuming.

“The UK Government has actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered,” scowled Mr Hosie. “We’re told that they hadn’t seen any evidence, but that is meaningles­s if they hadn’t looked for it.”

“The outrage isn’t that there was interferen­ce,” snapped Mr Jones. “The outrage is that no one wanted to know if there was interferen­ce.”

This wasn’t about party politics, he insisted. “It’s above that. It’s about making sure that our political process is as secure as possible – so that people have faith that their vote counts.”

But in that last phrase, perhaps, lies the problem. People certainly do want to have faith that their vote counts. And if Britain hadn’t ended up leaving the EU, more than 17million people might well have lost that faith.

So imagine the eruption if, at some point before Jan 31 this year, an inquiry had concluded that Russia successful­ly interfered in the referendum.

What then? Remainers might have demanded that the result be overturned. But Brexiteers would reasonably have retorted that they had their own reasons for voting Leave, and Russia hadn’t influenced their decision in the slightest.

Either way, yet more British in-fighting would have been guaranteed. The fury. The blazing tribal acrimony. What a treat that would have been for Putin.

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