There have been two astonishing interventions by the British intelligence services in the UK’s ongoing Brexit crisis.
In the first development, on 5 July, the BBC carried a story that, when he was Foreign Secretary and therefore had ministerial responsibility for SIS, Boris Johnson was denied access to key intelligence on the grounds that he was unreliable. This story appears to have originated with supporters of Theresa May, the current UK Prime Minister, who have never forgiven Johnson for what they see as his betrayal of her. The BBC then used its contacts in the intelligence services who, astonishingly, confirmed the story. Boris Johnson’s highly equivocal statement that: “I saw what I needed to see” only seemed to further confirm the accuracy of the story.
The denial of access to key intelligence by a British Foreign Secretary is unprecedented. There were certainly rumours that Johnson had a reputation during his time in the post as being a soft touch when it came to clearance of operations because he has a poor grasp of detail (a reputation which has extended to his official decisions in other governmental roles). But if he could not be trusted with key intelligence then that is an even blacker mark against his name.
Friends of Spying Today have made enquiries and the contested intelligence appears to have related to sources in the United States. Britain’s distrust of the Trump administration was demonstrated on 7 July when leaked emails by the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, revealed that the White House under Trump is viewed as “uniquely dysfunctional”, “divided” and “inept.” Sir Kim’s view will have been formed by his both personal experience and also by secret intelligence on the White House that he will have seen. Spying on allies, while commonplace, is always a highly sensitive matter. It is well known that Johnson is close to the Trump administration. He is also notoriously prone to indiscretion. It is believed to be this risk that led to the call to exclude him from this particularly sensitive area of UK intelligence reporting.
Then, as if this bombshell was not damaging enough, on 6 July, John Sawers, chief of SIS 2009-2014, told the BBC that the current Conservative leadership campaign would result in Britain having a Prime Minister who “does not have the standing that we have become used to in our top leadership.” One of those two contenders is, of course, Boris Johnson.
Sawers went further: in reference to Brexit, he said that Britain was undergoing a “political nervous breakdown” thus damning one of Johnson’s key policies. He added that Brexit would leave Britain’s international standing “severely diminished.” These declarations led to a furious attack on Sawers by former Conservative Party leader, Ian Duncan Smith, who claimed that Sawers was going through “a political nervous breakdown of his own” and accused him of being “slightly frightened of democracy”. Again, such an attack on a former chief of SIS by a party leader is unprecedented and demonstrates the level of infighting there is at the highest levels of British government and intelligence. The intelligence services do not fully trust the future leaders of the government and the future leaders of the government are laying into the intelligence services for not toeing the accepted line. It is a situation tantamount to civil war. It may well become worse if Johnson wins the leadership election.
Meanwhile Russia is reported to be pleasantly surprised, but bemused. When they half-heartedly deployed their assets to support both Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign, they had no idea that one, let alone both campaigns, would be successful. Indeed, it is uncertain how much their interventions actually assisted the two victories. Nevertheless, they are very happy with the results. Trump has crippled the US leadership resulting in a number of poor decisions (as Sir Kim Darroch’s leaked correspondence outlines). Meanwhile, Brexit threatens to tear the Western European allies apart. It will start with trade, but Russia hopes that will soon extend to NATO. Three years ago, the Kremlin could only have dreamed of such success. It is now wondering how to capitalise on these windfalls.