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Politicians must be vigilant over threats posed by foreign governments

December 30, 2022 6:48 am

Soliciting prostitutes, boozing to excess and verbally abusing local staff. Brits abroad, eh? Only, for once it isn’t boorish lads on a stag party who stand accused of appalling conduct overseas, but British parliamentarians.

MPs and peers are alleged to have engaged in a miscellany of misconduct on foreign trips organised by all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs). The charge sheet includes asking for directions to the nearest brothel, skipping morning meetings following heavy drinking sessions and subjecting a diplomat to a “sustained tirade”, according to an investigation by Politico.

Such hair-raising reports prompt urgent questions about the character of the parliamentarians involved, none of whom have been named so far, as well as the oversight model for these APPG visits. However, amid the abundant claims of outrageous antics, one allegation in particular should give pause for thought.

Despite some MPs apparently needing little persuasion to indulge in poor conduct on these foreign jaunts, it seems nonetheless that third parties have actively sought to encourage risky behaviour – and potentially for malicious ends.
The Times revealed that on one APPG visit to a dictatorship, MPs found prostitutes loitering in their hotel rooms. There was no suggestion that the MPs knew in advance that sex workers awaited them, nor that they engaged their services.

Still, the incident has provoked unease in Government, where sources fear the ruse was clearly intended to gain leverage over MPs on the trip. If any parliamentarian had fallen prey to temptation, hidden cameras would probably have recorded footage that, in turn, could have been used to blackmail the politician.

The obvious inference is that the (unidentified) host state was behind the ploy, which itself appears to have been a blatant attempt at an old fashioned “honey trap”. More commonly found as a plot device in novels by John Le Carré, who coined the term in the first place, the honey trap might have been assumed to be a relic of Cold War tradecraft.
But its deployment today reflects an era of growing international competition and geopolitical intrigue not dissimilar to the heyday of Western-Soviet tensions.

A plethora of espionage operations are targeting our politicians, with outré tactics like the honey trap dovetailing with far more artful techniques that are harder to detect.

Some of these are underscored by technological prowess and involve complex digital attacks. In a notorious 2017 incident pinned on Iran, up to 90 people’s email accounts were compromised in a cyber attack on UK Parliament.
In this instance it was worrying that the methodology was not even sophisticated; the hack was based on a rudimentary technique that exploited weak passwords.

Meanwhile Russia’s attempts at undermining UK democracy and the integrity of the Scottish independence referendum via disinformation, bot networks and propaganda has also been well documented. It was even alleged this autumn that Moscow agents hacked Liz Truss’s mobile phone when she was foreign secretary, allegedly affording them access to “top secret details” of Britain’s negotiations with international allies.

More insidious operations are also under way on home turf. Last month the MI5 chief, Ken McCallum, used his annual public threat appraisal to draw attention to the Chinese authorities, who he described as “playing the long game” in cultivating contacts in Britain to “manipulate opinion in China’s favour”.

This strategy involves Beijing gradually developing debts of obligation, such as offering all-expenses-paid trips to lavish resorts on thin pretexts, and is aimed not only at cross-party, high-profile MPs or peers, but also at individuals at a far earlier stage of their career in public life.

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When I asked him to elaborate in a Q&A after his speech, he explained that Chinese intelligence is pinpointing local councillors and others who “might be future parliamentary candidates, but aren’t yet even a candidate, still less an MP”. Beijing’s efforts are not confined to politics either: future rising stars and individuals deemed to show potential in academia and industry are also being targeted in this way.

Examining the relatively low status of these “marks” has led some people to conclude that if that is the best that China can do, its influence operation is of little concern. McCallum insists this is the wrong conclusion. “If they are prepared to invest this amount of patience, this amount of money, this amount of effort in cultivating very large volumes of potential assets across the whole of our system, that to me looks like a large and enduring challenge,” he said.

It was only at the beginning of this year after all that MI5 was forced to issue an interference alert to MPs about an alleged Chinese agent, who had donated around £500,000 to the office of Labour MP Barry Gardiner. He later spoke of his anger that someone had tried to use him this way.

Taken together, then, these attempts by hostile states to build influence and enable interference in British politics involve targeting both specific, prominent politicians and diffuse groups of low-level actors. Brazen tactics are being employed by overseas powers not only abroad, but here at home, too. Some operations seek immediate outcomes, while others look to further horizons.

The upshot is that our democracy is under more sustained attack than many may have supposed. Politicians must be increasingly vigilant – not just against the obvious perils presented by honey traps and other vintage gambits, but about the risks linked to their associates, employees, donors and digital communications, too.

Lucy Fisher is chief political commentator at Times Radio

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