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Did Russia interfere in Brexit?: An unpublished report roils U.K. politics before election

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on Nov. 5. (Tolga Akmen/AP)
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Nearly 3½ years since Britain voted to leave the European Union, an unpublished report that investigates possible Russian interference in that decision is once again roiling British politics — only a little more than a month before a crucial general election that may decide the country’s future.

On Tuesday, opposition lawmakers took Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to task for an alleged delay in the publication of the report, which is titled “Russia” and includes evidence from British intelligence agencies about alleged Russian interference in British elections and other possible threats.

“What on earth do they have to hide?” Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary for the opposition party Labour, said in the House of Commons.

Some media outlets have suggested that rather than presenting a damning picture of Kremlin meddling in the Brexit vote, the report tamps down speculation. Citing two sources, BuzzFeed News reported last week that the report found no evidence that Russia interfered in the Brexit referendum or the 2017 general election.

But time is of the essence. Britain is due to vote for a new Parliament on Dec. 12, which means Parliament is scheduled to be dissolved so campaigning can begin — on Tuesday. This means if the report is not released soon, it probably will be delayed until after the British election.

Critics of the government say the delay is inexplicable. The report, produced by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, was finalized in March and sent to Johnson’s office on Oct. 17.

Dominic Grieve, a former member of Johnson’s government who is chairman of the committee, told the BBC this week that any arguments not to release the report before the election would be “entirely disingenuous and grossly misleading."

However, government ministers have said the report is simply going through the proper procedure for the release of sensitive information. “It’s been lodged with Number 10 [Downing Street] and it will be published in due course,” Michael Gove, a member of Johnson’s cabinet, told BBC Radio 4′s Today program on Tuesday.

As in the United States, allegations of Russian interference in Britain’s elections have cast a pall over voting results in Britain during the past few years. Britain’s vote to exit the European Union won by a 52-48 percent majority, leading to years of controversy about how to leave the bloc, and even whether it still should.

Kremlin foes say Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the main benefactors of a decision that threw both Britain and the E.U. into disarray. The Russian government has been accused of acts of aggression in Britain, including the 2018 poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former spy living in England.

But the British government has pushed back on allegations of Russian interference in the Brexit vote before. In 2017, then-Prime Minister Theresa May said Russian propaganda had “no direct successful influence” on the Brexit vote.

“Nyet,” said Johnson, then the foreign secretary, when asked about possible Russian interference in British elections, adding there was “not a sausage” of evidence. May went on to lose her parliamentary majority in an early election in June 8, 2017, adding further political instability to the country.

The “Russia” report is intended to be a broad-ranging investigation and could include controversial information beyond election interference. The Guardian reported on Friday that Christopher Steele, a former British spy now notorious for his investigation of President Trump’s links to Russia, has given evidence.

“This is disturbing,” Bill Browder, a U.S.-born British financier and activist against Russian influence, wrote on Twitter last Thursday, explaining that he, too, had given evidence and had expected it to be released before the election.