UK's MI5 issued Chinese spy alert to divert attention from PM scandal, court hears

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives evidence to UK COVID Inquiry in London

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's domestic spy agency MI5 issued an alert branding a woman a Chinese agent possibly to detract attention from a COVID lockdown party scandal involving former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a tribunal in London heard on Monday.

In January 2022, MI5 sent out an alert notice about lawyer Christine Lee, alleging she was "involved in political interference activities" in the United Kingdom on behalf of China's ruling Communist Party.

The warning was circulated to lawmakers by the House of Commons Speaker who said MI5 had found that Lee had "facilitated financial donations to serving and aspiring parliamentarians on behalf of foreign nationals based in Hong Kong and China".

Lee is now suing MI5 for unspecified damages, arguing the agency had acted unlawfully and unreasonably.

At an Investigatory Powers Tribunal hearing on Monday, her lawyer Ramby de Mello read out a message sent to Lee from Barry Gardiner - a lawmaker for the opposition Labour Party who said he had received hundreds of thousands of pounds in donations from her - in which he queried MI5's motives.

Gardiner wrote "many people" believed the timing of the alert was to divert attention from Johnson's admission of an unlawful gathering at Downing Street during the first COVID lockdown.

The day before the notice was issued, Johnson had apologised to parliament for attending a "bring your own booze" gathering that had been held at his official residence.

"I had never believed that the Security Services would be overtly party political in that way," said Gardiner's message, sent to Lee via a mutual friend in May 2022.

"What has 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."

Gardiner could not immediately be reached for comment.

De Mello said MI5 had no power to issue the "unprecedented" notice, which he said was factually wrong in asserting Lee had carried out political interference activities on behalf of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party.

He said the UFWD would not engage her as an agent because she was a devout Christian, saying the impact of the alert, which had attracted worldwide interest, had been "catastrophic", leading to threats of death and rape, and other abusive emails.

Her lawyers said in court documents that Lee, who watched proceedings from the public gallery, had been forced to spend most of her time in hiding, and had had to adopt a fake name and to disguise her appearance with a new hairstyle.

In its written submissions, MI5's lawyers said the alert (IA) had been issued on the grounds of national security to protect parliamentary democracy from foreign interference.

"The respondent assessed that (Lee) posed a risk of this nature, and its judgment was that the issuing of the IA was the most effective and proportionate means to address that risk. Those assessments were rational and lawful," the lawyers said.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Alison Williams)