MI5 accused of leaking ‘Chinese spy’ story to distract from partygate

Christine Lee with Barry Gardiner
Lawyer Christine Lee with Barry Gardiner

A former Labour minister who received more than £500,000 from a lawyer accused of spying for China has claimed MI5 issued an alert about the suspected operative to distract from partygate.

Christine Lee is suing MI5 after the domestic intelligence agency issued the alert notice in 2022, warning MPs that she was a suspected Chinese agent.

The alert said she may have engaged in “political interference activities” on behalf of a branch of the Chinese Communist Party.

On Monday, a tribunal heard that Barry Gardiner, the former Labour MP for Brent North who is seeking re-election, sent a text message to a friend of Ms Lee suggesting the notice may have been issued to “detract attention” from Boris Johnson’s apology over partygate, which he had made the day before.

Ms Lee had donated more than £500,000 to Mr Gardiner, who was chairman of the now disbanded Chinese in Britain All-Party Parliamentary Group.

Ms Lee was also a member of the group while her son, David Wilkes, worked for Mr Gardiner. He lost his job after the warning was issued.

Barry Gardiner
Mr Gardiner chaired the now defunct Chinese in Britain All-Party Parliamentary Group - PJR NEWS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

The security services said the funding was ultimately provided by foreign nationals and “undertaken in covert coordination” with the Chinese Communist Party.

In the text message made public at an Investigatory Powers Tribunal, held in London, Mr Gardiner, who was a Labour frontbench spokesman under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, wrote: “Many people have said to me that they believe the reason for putting out the story when they did was to detract attention from Boris’ partygate apology, which was announced the day before at PMQs.

“I had never believed that the security services would be overtly party political in that way.

“What has also been suggested to me is that the security services may have wished to ‘pick a fight’ or to ‘detract attention’ from something else and that we were simply collateral damage.

“The fact that they have apparently failed to take any further action for the supposedly ‘illegal’ activity which they alleged had taken place, leaves me deeply sceptical.”

‘Alert was unlawful’

Ms Lee denies the allegations that she is a Chinese agent and has brought the legal claim, arguing that issuing the alert was unlawful and interfered with her human rights. Her son is also taking legal action against the security services.

The alert about Ms Lee was issued on January 13, 2022, one day after Mr Johnson, the then prime minister, apologised to the House of Commons for breaching Covid lockdown rules.

At the hearing on Monday, Ramby de Mello, representing Ms Lee and Mr Wilkes, said it was “plainly wrong” for the notice to have been issued.

He said: “Such a notice was unprecedented and, as far as we are concerned, it was the first time it was ever issued.

“The notice, alert notice, contains factual errors and is inaccurate and should not have been issued, and was issued unlawfully.”

Travelling on business

In written submissions, Mr de Mello said Ms Lee engaged in activities including travelling to China and Hong Kong for business, meeting Chinese officials and making speeches that “criticised the protesters in Hong Kong for using violence”.

But he said that Ms Lee “did not know at the time, and had no reason to believe” that the activities “could fall foul of national security measures, based on unacceptable business or political activities connected with China or UK MPs”.

The tribunal was told that the donations to Mr Gardiner came “overwhelmingly” from “profit costs” of her law firm and that the Security Service failed to consider that it was “unlikely” she would have been recruited as an agent, due to her Christian beliefs.

‘Death threats’

Mr de Mello said the alert had “catastrophic” consequences, with Ms Lee receiving “sustained abuse, threats of death and rape”, and remaining “most of the time in hiding”.

Mr Wilkes had his parliamentary security access revoked and lost his job with Mr Gardiner after the Security Service “spoke to” the former Brent North MP, who is now a candidate for the Brent West constituency.

Mr de Mello said that Mr Wilkes was given “an ultimatum: resign or be sacked” and “but for the Security Service’s act of branding Ms Lee a spy and their conversation with Mr Gardiner” he would not have lost his job.

Mr Wilkes is also seeking unspecified damages.

Assessment was ‘rational’

The Security Service is contesting the case, claiming that its decision was “rational and lawful”.

In written submissions, Victoria Wakefield KC, said: “The decision to issue the interference alert was made in the discharge of the respondent’s statutory function to protect national security, in particular, its protection against threats from the activities of agents of foreign powers and from actions intended to undermine parliamentary democracy by political means.

“The respondent assessed that Ms Lee posed a risk of this nature, and its judgment was that the issuing of the interference alert was the most effective and proportionate means to address that risk. Those assessments were rational and lawful.”

The barrister continued that while it was accepted that the notice had a “significant effect” on Ms Lee, she was not “entitled to keep quiet” the nature of her “involvement in political interference activities” and could have no “legitimate expectation of privacy” as a result.

She added: “In the present case, the respondent concluded on the information available to it that Ms Lee posed a threat to national security and that action was necessary to counter that threat.”

The hearing before Lord Justice Singh, Lord Boyd and Judge Rupert Jones is expected to conclude on Tuesday, with a judgment expected in writing at a later date.

The suggestion that MI5 timed the issuing of its notice to deflect from Mr Johnson’s woes will likely irritate and anger the intelligence community. On its website MI5 stresses that the Security Service Act “makes the director general responsible in law for ensuring that we do not act to further the interests of any political party”.

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