Following last week's MI5 alert about an alleged Chinese interference operation at Westminster, Home Secretary Priti Patel made a statement to the Commons on Monday on foreign interference in British politics.
Patel told MPs that such alerts would be more common in future, and "we are developing new national security legislation to make it even harder for states to conduct malign activity. We are also taking further steps to protect the integrity of our democracy by tackling electoral fraud and preventing foreign interference in elections through the Elections Bill."
While even some Conservative MPs regard the electoral fraud measures as misconceived, the Elections Bill does include measures to restrict foreign campaign funding. However, several opposition MPs suggested these did not go far enough.
Responding for Labour, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said there had not been 'a proper response to the recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is chaired by the former MI5 head.'
When will there be a response to the Committee’s crucial recommendation on the funding of digital campaigns and to its important recommendation that more needs to be done on identifying the source of donations and the role of shell companies? Labour has tabled a common-sense amendment to the Elections Bill this very afternoon: new clause 9, which would close the loophole allowing foreign donors to hide behind shell companies. Will the Home Secretary now support that important amendment to ensure that donors to UK political parties have a connection to the UK?
The SNP's Stuart McDonald made a similar point:
the Home Secretary talked about making the rules around foreign money tougher. What about the millions of pounds of donations received by political parties, particularly the Conservative party, from unincorporated associations—a type of body that the Committee on Standards in Public Life warned was “a route for foreign money to influence UK elections”? Will that be stopped?
Given that last week's Chinese allegations focused on links to predominantly Labour MPs, it was striking that opposition MPs sounded rather more bullish than Patel. McDonald's comments suggest a perception that the Conservatives have their own vulnerabilities in relation to Russian money.
That is certainly the thrust of a Guardian opinion piece today by Labour MP Liam Byrne, citing a warning from think-tank Chatham House that 'Westminster – and the Conservative parliamentary party in particular – may be open to influence from wealthy donors who originate from post-Soviet kleptocracies, and who may retain fealty to these regimes.'
Byrne is one of a cross-party group of MPs calling for amendments to strengthen the regime on party funding, including new powers for the Electoral Commission to call in donations on national security grounds.
The government's response to such calls may be one index of the seriousness underlying the hardening rhetoric on Russia exemplified by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in his article on the MOD website today.