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12 February 2020

Will Boris Johnson release the Russian interference report after the cabinet reshuffle?

The Intelligence and Security Committee needs to be reformed before the Russia report is released. How long will that be?

By George Grylls

On the day after the general election, Boris Johnson sent a letter to the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). He wrote that there was nothing in their report into Russian interference that would compromise national security. As soon as the committee was reformed, he promised, the document would be released. The problem was that only five of the committee’s ten members would be returning to parliament following the election — and two of them were peers. 

The timing was dubious, to say the least, and looked cynical. But opposition figures in the know believe the report was delayed because of “cock-up rather than conspiracy” (combined perhaps with a personal animus against ISC chair and Brexit rebel Dominic Grieve). 

On the last day of debate before parliament’s dissolution for the election, all three of the MPs who were elected onto the committee as Tories — Grieve, Richard Benyon and Keith Simpson — spoke up to criticise the government’s decision to delay publication. All three are now no longer MPs. But they had some wisdom to confer on their final day in parliament. In each of their speeches, Grieve, Benyon and Simpson either implied, or explicitly stated, that even if this was part of some Cummings masterplan, it was foolish for the government to delay. The speculation about the report would be more politically damaging than its contents. It made sense to publish.

After all, the donations made by prominent Russians to the Conservative Party were already in the public domain (another significant sum amounting to “several millions” is thought to be declared soon). By not releasing the report, the Tories were inviting the return of bad publicity. The Russia connections would — and did — float about for the duration of the election campaign. It was Johnson’s luck that his opposite number could not make these damaging associations stick.

So, given that the elections to other committees are taking place now, when will the report be released? Following the 2017 general election, the ISC took much longer to assemble than the other committees — over five months. But that was something of an anomaly. ISC members are nominated by their party leaders and then approved by the Prime Minister. In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn held up the entire process by putting forward Kelvin Hopkins — an MP who could not pass the security vetting.

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There is only so much the government can do to affect the ISC. The balance of the committee — how many seats are reserved for different parties — is apparently fixed, with three positions for Labour, three for the Conservatives, two for the SNP and two for the Lords. Meanwhile, the committee chair is decided by an internal election.

There is some speculation that Johnson could offer places on the ISC to demoted cabinet ministers following the reshuffle. This would serve the dual purpose of according due respect to disgruntled colleagues and hasten the committee’s re-establishment since former ministers will already have cleared security vetting. Meanwhile, it seems unlikely Corbyn will hold up the process once again because the composition of the ISC is far from top of his priorities list. His legacy is more important.

The consensus seems to be that the ISC will probably be back up and running (and ready to look at the influence of China and the spread of far-right terrorism) sometime around Easter. That is when the Russia report will be released. But would-be conspiracists should look out for two things: who are Johnson’s three Conservative appointments to the committee and will he try to renegotiate the balance of party representation? As it stands, because the party balance is fixed and the elections for chair are internal, there is only so much the Prime Minister can do to influence the committee’s shape. 

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