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Charles Moore

The curious case of Barry Gardiner

The curious case of Barry Gardiner
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In May 2020, in the wake of the Barnard Castle story, Emily Maitlis delivered her famous Newsnight address to the nation: ‘Dominic Cummings broke the rules. The country can see that, and it’s shocked the government cannot.’ The public felt ‘fury, contempt and anguish’ at what had happened. The Prime Minister was showing ‘blind loyalty’ to a colleague, etc. Now Mr Cummings is chief witness for the prosecution of Boris Johnson of which Ms Maitlis was an early forerunner. It is time for Emily to speak to us via Newsnight once more and, in the interests of the BBC’s Impartiality Action Plan, declare: ‘Dominic Cummings is a brave whistle-blower. Shocked that the Prime Minister has broken Covid rules, he has now spoken out’, etc.

Operation Save Big Dog is the plan to keep Boris in office. Press reports say that the rebels have called their counter-plan Operation Rinka. It is one of those jokes that makes you smile only for a moment: then you realise it does not work. Firstly, it is an odd form of propaganda to link your campaign with the cruel shooting of an innocent dog. Secondly, the shooting achieved nothing. It was, allegedly, an attempt by a hired killer to frighten off Rinka’s owner, Norman Scott, from repeating his claims against his former lover Jeremy Thorpe, the then Liberal leader. The killing of Rinka was a useless substitute for the intended killing — if the story is true — of Scott himself. Operation Rinka therefore seems an ill-omened name for a political assassination.

The phrase ‘Dance with the one that brung ya’ is invoked by ‘Red Wall’ Tories critical of the Prime Minister. It is a good principle, first enunciated in a political context by Ronald Reagan. But the Red Wallers should remember that it was he, more than anyone else, who brung them to the seats they now hold. To employ another dance metaphor, it takes two to tango.

The story of the Corbynista Labour MP Barry Gardiner and the revelation that he accepted £420,000 (or more: accounts vary) for his office needs from Christine Lee, an ‘agent of influence’ of the Chinese government, working for its United Front Work Department, has puzzling aspects. The first is that MI5 caused the story to be published. In the past, the secret services were extremely wary about tangling in public with MPs, for the good reason that they would get dragged into political quarrels. If MI5 thought a Labour MP was a Russian spy, it would not normally tell this to a Conservative government (or, in terms of party, vice versa), lest one party might use it against another. Even less would it make the news public. Thus MI5 knew from the double agent Oleg Gordievsky that the future leader of the opposition Michael Foot, as a Labour backbench MP, had secretly taken cash from the KGB while editing the left-wing magazine Tribune. Mrs Thatcher was not told this while she was prime minister, and probably would not have wanted to be told. It would have put her in an awkward situation by which either publishing or withholding the name would have been open to criticism. The fact that MI5 now formally releases information about Mr Gardiner makes it look like a potential player in a political game, open to accusations that it is trying to smear one party — a trespass by what Sinn Féin call ‘securocrats’ into the rights of politicians.

If that were the case, however, the Labour party would now be jumping up and down with rage, yet it isn’t; and nor, it seems, is Mr Gardiner himself. Why? Is it because Mr Gardiner, who says he has liaised with the security services for a number of years about his contacts with Ms Lee, helped MI5 all the way through, to catch her out? Or could it be that Mr Gardiner, who has in the past made remarks sympathetic to the Chinese regime, was ‘turned’ by MI5 after it proved that he had known Ms Lee’s real status when he took her money? Did he agree to help the service in return for suffering no retribution? Was he what the Chinese Communist party calls ‘a friend of China’? (It is important to add there is, as yet, no full information available about the state of Mr Gardiner’s knowledge about Ms Lee before he was formally told of her espionage this week.)

Finally, why has the government said so little about the case? It cannot quite take refuge in the traditional mantra that ‘We never comment on security operations’ since MI5 has itself, in effect, commented by publishing the news. Under modern rules, MI5 must declare such information about a Member of Parliament to the Home Secretary and should brief the opposition leader (and involve parliamentary security officials as well). Did the Home Secretary agree to the MI5 tactics about releasing the information? We might be looking at an encouraging story in which various parts of the British state cooperated efficiently to expose a serious danger from a hostile power, or we could be contemplating a worrying example of political intervention by what critics sometimes call ‘the independent republic of Thames House’. I can’t yet work out which.

We are still not supposed to refer to Covid-19 as ‘the China virus’, though the evidence shows that is the most accurate short description available (and is better than ‘Chinese’, since it identifies a regime, not a people). An Arab friend points out that there is no such squeamishness about the use of the acronym Mers to describe a coronavirus which was first reported in 2012. It stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, but, so far as I know, no one has said this is unfair or racist. I suppose to have prevented that usage, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Arabian Peninsula (where all Mers cases originated) would first have had to buy up the World Health Organisation (WHO). Impossible since, even ten years ago, China had taken charge of it.