Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 12 September 2023

MI5 warned Conservatives that MP hopefuls could be spies

Two potential candidates dropped after the intelligence service said they could be Chinese agents
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MI5 secretly warned the Conservative Party that two of its potential candidates to become MPs could be spies for the Chinese state.

The Times has been told that the security service contacted the party about two people in 2021 and last year and advised that they should not be on the central list of candidates.

MI5 is said to have raised concerns that the pair had links to the United Front Work Department, a body charged with influencing global policy and opinion. They were blocked from the list, which is used to as a pool to pick candidates for by-elections and general elections.

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“It was made very clear that they posed a risk,” a source said. “They were subsequently blocked from the candidates list. They weren’t told why.”

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “When we receive credible information regarding security concerns over potential candidates we act upon them.”

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Details of the alleged attempt to infiltrate the party emerged after a Tory parliamentary researcher was arrested on suspicion of spying.

Chris Cash, 28, was the director of an influential group on Beijing co-founded by the security minister. He was also employed as a researcher by Alicia Kearns, chairwoman of the Commons foreign affairs select committee.

Cash, who studied in China before working in Westminster, released a statement through lawyers on Monday, insisting that he was “completely innocent”. He said the allegations were “against everything I stand for”, adding that he had spent his career “trying to educate others about the challenge and threats presented by the Chinese Communist Party”. China called the claims malicious slander.

Ken McCallum, the head of MI5, has warned that the Communist Party poses “the most game-changing strategic challenge” to the UK. He said in July last year: “One of the things that is very striking is that they are prepared to invest in cultivating people at local level, potentially, and at the outset of their political career.”

In July, the Commons intelligence and security committee published a report saying that China was targeting the UK “prolifically and aggressively”, but that government departments did not have the “resources, expertise or knowledge” to tackle the threat.

Last year the security service took the unprecedented step of issuing an alert to MPs naming Christine Lee, an Anglo-Chinese lawyer, as an agent of influence carrying out “political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party”. Lee, 59, who denies wrongdoing and is suing MI5, had donated almost £500,000 to Barry Gardiner, Labour’s former shadow international trade secretary. Lee’s son worked in Gardiner’s office.

Ken McCallum, the head of MI5, has described China as “the most game-changing strategic challenge” facing the country
Ken McCallum, the head of MI5, has described China as “the most game-changing strategic challenge” facing the country
MARTIN RICKETT/PA

Tory candidates are vetted by the party. They are subject to criminal record checks and an “in-depth” due diligence report, and are interviewed to assess their political judgment, experience and integrity. A Tory party source confirmed that in the past the security service had given a “nudge” if it had concerns about candidates.

Part of MI5’s mandate is to offer physical and personnel protective security to businesses and other organisations, including those involved in politics. It is an advisory role and it cannot make decisions about the employment of individuals or their involvement in the political arena.

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Rishi Sunak is under pressure from Tory MPs who have been sanctioned by Beijing to formally declare China a threat to Britain. The government has described China as an “epoch defining challenge”, but backbenchers want it to designate the country a hostile state.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said: “Even if they don’t want to call China a threat, the threat exists”
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said: “Even if they don’t want to call China a threat, the threat exists”
IAN DAVIDSON/ALAMY

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, who has been sanctioned, said: “Even if they don’t want to call China a threat, the threat exists. A bite from Rottweiler hurts just as much even if you call it a Pekinese.”

Behind the story: Beijing’s agent operates in the shadows

The United Front Work Department (UFWD) is one of the most important departments of the Chinese Communist Party, accused of deploying shadowy tactics to exert the influence of Beijing both at home and overseas (Fiona Hamilton writes).

MI5’s concerns that potential candidates for the Conservative Party had links to the UFWD is the first substantial revelation of its direct attempts to allegedly influence elections in Britain.

However, the UFWD was also accused of funding the alleged work of Christine Lee, which led to MI5 releasing a rare interference alert last January.

The intelligence service outed Lee, a solicitor who donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Labour MP Barry Gardiner and had links to politicians from each of the main parties, as being involved in “political interference activities on behalf of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party”. Lee denies wrongdoing and is understood to be suing MI5.

Earlier this year a report by parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC), which oversees the work of MI5 and other spy agencies, said that some of the UFWD’s work in trying to influence politicians and public perceptions of China might be seen as akin to traditional diplomacy.

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However, it also had a remit to engage in domestic and international activity “with the purpose of ensuring that potential critics and threats to the CCP are influenced, co-opted or coerced into silence”.

The report warned: “UFWD’s remit includes engaging in political influence and interference operations overseas, to ensure that politicians and high-profile figures in foreign states are supportive of the CCP, or at the very least do not criticise China or counter its narrative.”

Many of its influence activities are directed at the Chinese diaspora.

Earlier this year a Times investigation into secret police stations, designed to intimidate Chinese who moved to the UK to seek freedom, prompted calls for a full inquiry into the work of the UFWD in this country. The Times revealed that a businessman linked to one station in London had been invited to conferences and political events in China linked to the UFWD. He denied working for the Chinese government.

The ISC noted that the UFWD was a crucial part of Beijing’s efforts to interfere with the UK’s government and influence UK political thinking and decision-making relevant to China.

It said that UK-based people associated with the UFWD and other CCP-linked groups had encouraged others, including those with Chinese heritage, to pursue political office. It warned that UFWD-linked individuals had received funds to donate to political parties and prospective parliamentary candidates, and that there were attempts at generic influence over politicians perceived by the UFWD to be “sympathetic to the Chinese world view and CCP priorities”.

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