The soft underbelly of British security isn't the fault of politicians
It would be nice to move on from Liz Truss, but it seems that we can’t. Over the weekend, the Mail on Sunday reported that, while she was Foreign Secretary, Truss’s mobile phone had been “hacked by agents suspected of working for the Kremlin.” Indeed, the device is said to be so “heavily compromised” that it is now “locked safe inside a secure Government location.”
The allegations have been neither confirmed nor denied by official sources, but if true this wouldn’t be the first ministerial security breach to emerge in recent times. Earlier this month Suella Braverman (temporarily) resigned as Home Secretary, after sending a sensitive official document from her personal email. Last year, it was discovered that Boris Johnson’s personal phone number had been freely available on the internet over a 15 year period — prompting MI5 to confiscate his mobile.
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Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British Army, is not impressed. Quoted in today’s Guardian, he says: “This, frankly, is not good enough… If these people aspire to be in senior positions, positions of leadership, they’ve got to be disciplined.”
But can this be blamed entirely on the politicians? Isn’t it the job of the security services — and the civil servants who run Whitehall — to keep ministers out of trouble? Let’s not forget that our senior politicians aren’t usually that senior at all — at least not in terms of experience. Rishi Sunak, for instance, has become Prime Minister after just seven years as an MP and not quite five as a minister. And if Keir Starmer becomes Prime Minister within the next year or two, he will have had precisely no ministerial experience.
It seems extraordinary that the security of government communications should be predicated on the capacity of politicians never to use the wrong phone in the wrong place or to always type in the right email address. The fact is that ministers operate within a highly-pressured, always-on culture of politics in which the cult of comms reigns supreme. If mistakes can be made, then sooner or later they will be. And that includes the really stupid mistakes — in fact, the assumption should be that the more elementary the error, the more likely it is to happen.
The answer therefore is to design stupidity out of the system. It shouldn’t be possible for a minister to use a non-secure means of communication — and for that we need to create a centre of government operations fit for the 21st century. However, this would require the civil service to take the initiative and draw up the necessary plans. At the very least they should be in a position to present the Prime Minister with a series of options (other than continuing to run the country from a row of knocked-through, semi-dilapidated town houses).
But let’s not forget that it was senior civil servants who presided over the rolling disgrace of Partygate. If the highest officials in the land can’t prevent Downing Street from turning into a bacchanale in the middle of lockdown, then what chance do they have of protecting our political system against sophisticated hi-tech espionage?
This illustrates the problem with blaming absolutely everything on our politicians. These disposable Aunt Sallies take all of the criticism, while the dysfunctions of the permanent government go unchallenged.