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Boris Johnson’s big Brexit speech was high on rhetoric and short on answers

Remainers aren’t worried about John Stuart Mill - they’re worried about policy.

Boris Johnson and I don’t have much in common but we do share a university, albeit one we attended several decades apart. Listening to his big Brexit address at Policy Exchange, I found myself gripped by unwanted flashbacks to my time there and the speeches one would occasionally have to endure in tutorial when someone – usually but not exclusively someone from a famous private school like Johnson’s – hadn’t done the reading but did have a big argument they knew could get them through the hour.

Similarly, Johnson’s speech hung together as far as the essay question he had set himself – “Is Brexit a great liberal cause?”- went, but unfortunately it fell apart as far as the actual thing the government needs to solve; which is “What did Remainers fear to lose in the referendum, and how can they be reassured?”

The problem is that most Remainers didn’t vote to stay in the European Union because of a high-minded commitment to the institutions of the EU or an ideological sense that it was better for liberalism, or conservativism, or social democracy or socialism or whatever creed you care to name. Those that did are beyond the reach of Johnson or the government anyway. Most Remainers voted to stay in the EU because of concern about what leaving would look like, and the disruption it might cause, and it was on that subject that the speech was thinnest.

Where it did succeed in offering reassurance was the passages in which Johnson effectively pledged that in some sectors nothing would change, i.e. security and foreign affairs – for both of which the British government hopes it will effectively remain in the EU. (The same is true of science and research.)

It was when the speech entered the murkier areas – the ones where the government as a whole, and perhaps Johnson as an individual, is less clear on what they want – that it fell apart. Frankly, you can give as many fine monologues about the importance of setting our own tariffs, but the fear that occupies the minds of many Remainers, particularly those in Northern Ireland, is that Brexit means a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The only way you can prevent that is a significant measure of customs and regulatory alignment, which Johnson appeared to rule out in the speech.

Ditto, while the passages about British citizens still enjoying visa-free holidays might have been amusing, the actual point of voter concern is that they or their spouses will no longer be able to live, work and move in together freely in the EU area as they do now.

If Boris Johnson wants to make a success of Brexit, let alone to win back the Remainers it lost at the 2017 election, it needs to engage seriously with what the actual fears of the actual people who voted Remain are, and indeed engage seriously with the issues around delivering Brexit more broadly, not deliver 45 minutes of flannel about John Stuart Mill.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.