MPs threaten to take government to court over Russian election interference

21 August 2020, 13:30

MPs and peers are threatening Boris Johnson's government with legal action
MPs and peers are threatening Boris Johnson's government with legal action. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

MPs and peers "will take the government to court" unless Boris Johnson orders an investigation into Russian interference in UK elections.

The prime minister has been accused of a "lack of action" on the issue which concerns UK vote-meddling by the Eastern European country since 2016.

In a letter to Mr Johnson, the group - which includes the Green Party's Caroline Lucas, Labour's Chris Bryant and Baroness Wheatcroft, a Conservative peer until she resigned from the party last year - claim his failure to act is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, with particular concern for the right to free elections.

It adds they will take the prime minister to court if he refuses to take what they say are essential steps to protect votes in the future.

The key demand of the group is for the government to implement the recommendations of Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee's report into Russian interference - known as the Russia Report - which was published in July after a nine-month delay.

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Last month's report revealed the UK was "clearly a target for Russia's disinformation campaigns and political influence operations" and argued an independent inquiry was necessary to protect British democracy.

However, the prime minister has not yet accepted the request of the committee, which is now led by former Conservative MP Julian Lewis, who lost the party whip following a "coup" which saw him installed into his position.

In their letter, the signatories say their threat of legal action is a "last resort" given Mr Johnson's refusal to acknowledge the national security implications of his failure to act.

The group of MPs and peers have given the UK leader two weeks to respond to the letter.

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Ms Lucas said: "Democratic processes are clearly at risk and it seems that the integrity of our elections is being deliberately undermined. Nothing could be more serious for our democracy."

Lib Dem peer Lord Strasburger added: "The Prime Minister's refusal to even ask our intelligence services what the Russians did to influence the referendum is a total dereliction of his duty to protect us all."

Tessa Gregory, a human rights lawyer with Leigh Day who is representing the group, said that under the Human Rights Convention, countries had to not only ensure that free and democratic elections take place but that they do so under "conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature".

The Citizens, a non-profit group backing the letter, has also launched a Gofundme to pay for the legal action.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: "Safeguarding our democracy will always be an absolute priority and the UK has robust systems in place to protect our elections from interference.

"To prevent against any future threats we are bringing forward new legislation to provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to disrupt hostile state activity

"And we have also published proposals for a digital imprint regime that will improve transparency in political campaigning online, and are developing an online media literacy strategy, to help empower the public to question the information they read online."