Spy storm MP Barry Gardiner denies being made a ‘useful idiot’ by China

13 January 2022, 20:05 | Updated: 14 January 2022, 10:25

'Are you a useful idiot?': Iain Dale puts Barry Gardiner on the spot

By Sophie Barnett

The former Labour minister who received hundreds of thousands of pounds from a suspected Chinese government spy says he has not been made a "useful idiot" by China, telling LBC of his anger over the "abuse" of his trust.

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Barry Gardiner MP, who served as a shadow minister on former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's opposition front bench, told Iain Dale he felt "abused" by lawyer Christine Lee - who MI5 has uncovered as a suspected Chinese agent.

An email, sent by Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle earlier today, claimed Lee had been trying to influence MPs in Westminster.

He said she had been "engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party", "engaging with Members here at Parliament" and a now-defunct All-Party Parliamentary Group called "Chinese in Britain".

Lee donated around £500,000 to the office of Mr Gardiner between 2015 and 2020, mostly through funding for his staff. Daniel Wilkes, her son, worked in his office until Thursday morning.

The Labour MP has insisted he won't resign as he has been "transparent throughout the whole process".

Speaking to LBC's Iain Dale, the Labour MP said he feels he has been "abused" by Ms Lee - who he had come to see as a "personal friend".

"I feel very abused by it and very upset," he said.

'Why did you take money from Christine Lee?'

Iain asked Mr Gardiner if he had been made a "useful idiot" by the Chinese government. "Why did they choose you?" he asked.

Mr Gardiner replied: " I assume they believe that I was somebody that would play a role in the political system in this country and that they might at some stage be able to leverage that. They haven’t been able to.

"I’ve made sure that they’ve not been able to by the precautions that I’ve taken, by speaking to the security services, by being open and transparent in all cases and by making sure that actually at all stages I speak my mind, whether it’s about China or about anything else."

He told Iain he regarded Lee as a "friend", a "legitimate businesswoman" and believed she was a "good community servant".

"When I learned that was not who she was I was deeply upset and very angry. I feel that I have been abused by her," Mr Gardiner said.

He added: "I believed her to be genuine. I am shocked, actually very upset and really very angry, that somebody who I trusted sought to abuse that trust."

Barry Gardiner tells LBC how he ended up employing Christine Lee's son

He also denied Lee had any involvement in her son securing a job in the MP's office, insisting he applied for the role and was recruited in the usual way.

Mr Gardiner said Mr Wilkes had volunteered in his office for a few years.

"There was a clear separation between the money that she paid directly to the employee, but she had no role in their appointment and in their management," Mr Gardiner said.

"That was the separation of the finance from the politics."

The Telegraph said that concerns were raised about Lee's connections with Labour MP Barry Gardiner in 2017.

Reports say Theresa May wrote a personal letter to Lee in 2019, when the former was Prime Minister, as she was given a "Point of Light" award by Downing Street for her charity work.

Lee, whose firm is called Christine Lee & Co, has been pictured with ex-PM David Cameron and former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The Mail said she is a former chief legal adviser for the Chinese embassy to the UK and is the secretary of the Inter-Party China Group in Westminster.

She has also reportedly donated more than £500,000 to Mr Gardiner and hundreds of thousands to Labour.

Her firm also gave £5,000 to the Liberal Democrats in 2005 and has links to the Conservatives, the Mail said.

Labour MP Barry Gardiner takes LBC listeners' calls

Mr Gardiner said Lee had donated money to fund researchers in his office, but that she was not used to channel improper funds to him or his office and did not have a say in who was hired with the money.

He added that her son had stepped down from the role of his diary manager earlier on Thursday, and that she ceased funding researchers in June 2020.

Sir Lindsay's email said: "I should highlight the fact that Lee has facilitated financial donations to serving and aspiring parliamentarians on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China.

"This facilitation was done covertly to mask the origins of the payments.

"This is clearly unacceptable behaviour and steps are being taken to ensure it ceases."

A Security Service Interference Alert, issued by MI5, said Lee "acted covertly" with the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

It said that anyone contacted by her should be "mindful of her affiliation with the Chinese state and remit to advance the CCP's agenda in UK politics".

"We judge that the UFWD is seeking to covertly interfere in UK politics through establishing links with established and aspiring parliamentarians across the political spectrum," the alert said.

"The UFWD seeks to cultivate relationships with influential figures in order to ensure the UK political landscape is favourable to the CCP's agenda and to challenge those that raise concerns about CCP activity, such as human rights.

"Lee has been engaged in the facilitation of financial donations to political parties, parliamentarians, aspiring parliamentarians and individuals seeking political office in the UK, including facilitating donations to political entities on behalf of foreign nationals.

"Lee has publicly stated that her activities are to represent the UK Chinese community and increase diversity. However the aforementioned activity has been undertaken in covert co-ordination with the UFWD, with funding provided by foreign nationals located in China and Hong Kong.

"Lee has extensive engagement with individuals across the UK political spectrum, including through the now disbanded All-Party Parliamentary Chinese in Britain Group, and may aspire to establish further APPGs to further the CCP's agenda."

'The lives of those we've been supporting could now be at risk.'

Home Secretary Priti Patel said that "proportionate action is always taken to mitigate these threats, thanks to our world-leading intelligence and security agencies".

"Forthcoming measures to counter these kind of threats will build on the robust safeguards already in place, making our country even harder for states to conduct hostile activity in," she added.

In a statement on Thursday, Mr Gardiner said: "I have been liaising with our Security Services for a number of years about Christine Lee and they have always known, and been made fully aware by me, of her engagement with my office and the donations she made to fund researchers in my office in the past.

"Steps were taken to ensure Christine Lee had no role in either the appointment or management of those researchers. They are also aware that I have not benefitted personally from those donations in any way. She ceased funding any workers in my office in June 2020.

"All the donations were properly reported in the register of members’ interests and their source verified at the time. I have been assured by the Security Services that whilst they have definitively identified improper funding channelled through Christine Lee, this does not relate to any funding received by my office.

"Christine Lee's son volunteered in my office many years ago and was subsequently employed by me as a diary manager. He resigned from my employment earlier today. The Security Services have advised me that they have no intelligence that shows he was aware of, or complicit in, his mother's illegal activity.

"I will continue to work closely with our security services in this and all other matters that relate to the security of our country."