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UK politics

Should we be alarmed by Westminster’s spy drama?

Bond undercover in Dr No. Glamorous, but not much use in Westminster. MGM Studios/Getty

News that a Tory researcher was arrested in March for allegedly spying for China has prompted hysteria in Westminster, says Rory Stewart on The Rest is Politics. China hawk Iain Duncan Smith has hyperbolically talked of a “hostile act” at the heart of government. But we shouldn’t be “too pious” about the allegations. It is quite literally the job of intelligence agencies to recruit people in foreign governments. China’s spymasters have “well over 100,000 paid professionals working for them” – of course some of them are operating in London. And it goes without saying that Britain’s spooks are no doubt trying to do exactly the same thing in Beijing.

It’s also important to understand that there are different types of intelligence agent. The first is what’s known as an “influence agent”, whose job it is to “change people’s opinions and views”. Given what we know of the supposed Chinese agent (who strongly denies the allegations), the authorities probably believe he’s in this camp. The second category is someone who, as in the movies, tries to gather information that the target doesn’t want them knowing. But exciting as this sort of work may seem, it isn’t much use in parliament. Why? Because “there is very little classified information that MPs get their hands on”. Even when I was chairman of the parliamentary defence select committee, I didn’t have any top-secret intel that a foreign spy could access. It’s just “not a very good way of targeting people”.