A Labour ex-minister who received hundreds of thousands of pounds from an alleged Chinese government agent has admitted to Sky News he did discuss policy with Christine Lee, but insisted she “gained no political advantage for the Chinese state from me”.
In an exclusive interview, Brent North MP Barry Gardiner denied he felt “a fool” following the revelation that Ms Lee has been engaged in “political interference activities”.
But the Labour former frontbencher admitted he was “very angry that somebody tried to use me in that way”.
China denied the spying allegations late on Thursday night, saying it had “no need” to “buy influence” in any foreign parliament.
‘Very poor investment’
Asked by Sky News chief political correspondent Jon Craig if he ever discussed Labour policy with Ms Lee, Mr Gardiner replied: “No, not in great detail, no.”
And he suggested Ms Lee had received “a very poor investment” from the donations she gave to him, mainly to cover staffing costs in his office.
As well as receiving donations, Mr Gardiner had also been employing Ms Lee’s son up until Thursday morning, which is when the MP said he was first told by the security services about Ms Lee “being a spy”.
“I then went and I immediately contacted her son who has worked in my office as the diary manager and I asked him to tender his resignation forthwith, which he did,” Mr Gardiner told Sky News.
“But I want to stress to you that the security services said to me they had no information that led them to believe that he was aware of his mother’s illegal activity.”
Ms Lee ‘asked about MP’s parents-in-law this week’
Mr Gardiner received more than £500,000 from Ms Lee over a period of six years. And he revealed he had spoken to her as recently as this week when, Mr Gardiner said, she enquired about his elderly parents-in-law.
But he added he had been “cautious” about his relationship with her “because I knew that she was a solicitor who acted for a number of Chinese businesses in the UK over a very long period of time”.
Mr Gardiner, a junior minister in Tony Blair’s government who then served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, revealed he had “spoken openly and frankly” with the security services “for a number of years” about his engagement with Ms Lee.
“At no time did they suggest that I cut off engagement with her,” he added, as he stressed he had always been “totally transparent” about donations made to his office.
The Labour MP said he had been told by the security services that they have “no evidence at all” at the moment that the money his office received came from the Chinese state.
He also highlighted his past criticisms of the Chinese government, such as on climate change issues and human rights concerns.
And the former shadow energy minister denied he had been a “cheerleader” for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which has been bankrolled by a Chinese state-backed firm.
Sir Ed Davey ‘can’t remember’ Christine Lee
Parliamentary records show Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey received a £5,000 donation from Christine Lee in 2013 when he was energy secretary in the coalition government.
Speaking to Sky News on Friday, Sir Ed said he was “shocked” at the revelation.
“I can’t even remember this woman, to be frank,” he said.
“The real issue is how the Chinese government, through different agents, are trying to infiltrate our democracy. We need to make sure, and our secret services need to make sure, we are fully protected – that is the key thing, and it is the key thing all along.
“So I really hope that this now enables parliament with Mr Speaker in the lead of that working what our security services to make sure that across the piece every politician and all political parties are properly protected from this type of infiltration.”
Case ‘shows intelligence system is working’
Security minister Damian Hinds said the fact Ms Lee was detected shows the intelligence system is working.
He told Sky News: “This isn’t a story about one British politician or even one political party.
“This is a story, an incident, an item about how other states can seek to influence our country in different ways, one of which is political interference, and one of the ways of doing that is through provision of finance.
“Of course, that’s a concern but I mean, what came out yesterday, this is an example of our system working, this is our world-leading intelligence and security services discovering this and finding a way to disrupt it.”
Ms Lee has now had a “Point of Light” award she received in 2019 from then prime minister Theresa May rescinded.
Mr Gardiner pointed to that award as he described how Ms Lee “was operating as a legitimate person in the UK”.
“This is somebody who received awards from the British prime minister,” he said. “This is somebody who, to all intents and purposes, was operating as a legitimate person in the UK.
“It now is clear, because the security services have this information, that she was acting to try and gain influence.
“I am very clear, and I believe the security services are clear, that she did not manage to do that. She gained no political advantage for the Chinese state from me in any way whatsoever.”