“It’s a remarkably dangerous situation. This is a guy who allegedly spies on behalf of the Chinese government in the place where decisions are made and sensitive information is transferred.”
Thus spake Sir Iain Duncan Smith in response to the news that the alleged Chinese spy recently arrested was none other than a former researcher for Alicia Kearns who was apparently, to use the Times‘ words, “closely linked with Tom Tugendhat”.
Kearns is the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee; Tugendhat, in addition to being Security Minister, is a prominent member of the China Research Group of Conservative MPs. One can see why an (alleged) Chinese intelligence asset might be interested in them.
But some of the coverage feels a little breathless. Nobody with much experience of Westminster, surely, can take too gloomy a view of the amount of damage a 28-year-old MP’s researcher can possibly have done to British foreign policy.
There doesn’t seem to be any suggestions that Kearns’ was given access to classified information in the course of her role at the Foreign Affairs Committee, nor that Tugendhat leaked any. Meaning what the researcher was most likely doing is the normal, unremarkable work of a researcher: compiling reports and research notes for MPs, and in all likelihood ghost-writing some speeches and articles too.
Now someone in that position can obviously slant whatever they produce, emphasising and omitting things to steer the reader a certain way. There is little doubt that such things have some value to authoritarian regimes – it is precisely the sort of thing they tend to pay public relations agencies for.
But public relations is what it is. Perhaps, as has been suggested, the researcher’s efforts managed to make some of the MPs he was working with more dovish on China. It seems unlikely to shift British foreign policy, let alone world events, very much.
I worked in Parliament for five years. Being Irish, they were right careful about it, too – it took six months’ to get my security pass. Yet once I’d got my key to the heart of the British establishment, it comprised mostly office corridors and canteens. Opportunities for tradecraft (had I any) seem in retrospect to have been very limited indeed.
More information may yet come out about Cash which changes this picture. But as it stands, it may be that the biggest takeaway of all this is how much of the work presented to the world by MPs and backbench organisations is actually more-or-less the repackaged efforts of an anonymous 28-year-old.
How many articles or speeches on the subject of China did the researcher write, or at least do the research for, for Kearns and other MPs? Will they tell us? Are they still confident in their contents?