The Times has today named the parliamentary researcher who has been arrested under the Official Secrets Act, on suspicion that he was spying for China. The man in question had links to several senior Tory MPs who were privy to classified or highly sensitive information include Tom Tugendhat, the security minister, and Alicia Kearns, who chairs the Commons foreign affairs committee. The man in question was arrested back in March; a handful of ministers were informed but details of the alleged security breach were not made public until this weekend,
The most striking aspect of this story is the sheer amount of time and effort which China appears to be investing in targeting parliament and Beijing hawks in particular. Tugendhat and Kearns are prominent Sinosceptics. Both believe that they have been targeted by Chinese hackers before. Tugendhat had to call in a division of GCHQ in 2020 to examine online impersonation efforts. Kearns said last month that her parliamentary email was targeted by a source tracked back to China. Opinions differ as to the extent to which parliament and its vetting procedures are a soft target for foreign intelligence efforts. The process to obtain a parliamentary pass has been tightened in recent years, though questions remain about the ease of access for outsiders coming in on a visitors’ pass.
The debates around parliamentary security and the researcher’s background will continue to rumble on. Attention will likely turn to the MPs named in connection to this story. In assessing the culpability of those who hired the researcher and gave him a parliamentary pass, it is worth remembering that espionage efforts are often simply about trying to discredit public figures vocal about hostile states. Any rush to judgement ought to consider that fact and acknowledge that Tugendhat, Kearns and others were deliberately chosen because of their scepticism towards China.