Brexit, government disarray in UK – Davis, Johnson resign

Theresa May’s leadership in Britian is said to be on very shaky ground, aas is their Brexit plans,  after Brexit Secretary David Davis resigned from the government.

BBC:  Brexit Secretary David Davis resigns

Brexit Secretary David Davis, who has been leading negotiations to leave the EU, has resigned from the government.

In his resignation letter, Mr Davis criticised the PM’s Brexit plan – agreed by the cabinet on Friday – saying it would leave Parliament with “at best a weak negotiating position”.

In his letter, Mr Davis told Mrs May that “the current trend of policy and tactics” was making it “look less and less likely” that the UK would leave the customs union and single market.

He said he was “unpersuaded” that the government’s negotiating approach “will not just lead to further demands for concessions” from Brussels.

Mr Davis, who was appointed Brexit Secretary in 2016, said: “The general direction of policy will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one.”

In her reply, Mrs May said: “I do not agree with your characterisation of the policy we agreed at cabinet on Friday.”

Junior minister Steve Baker quit shortly after Mr Davis – as Mrs May prepares to face MPs and peers later.

Sounds very messy.

The Conservatives have struggled since May took over as Prime Minister and led them into a disastrous snap election. And it looks worse now.

UPDATES: Missy has been updating in comments as things unfold in the UK on Monday (their time). Here is the big new news:

  • Boris Johnson resigns as foreign secretary amid growing crisis over UK’s Brexit strategy

Johnson could ‘not champion proposals’

In his resignation letter to the prime minister, Boris Johnson wrote:

“Brexit should be about opportunity and hope. It should be a chance to do things differently… That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self doubt.”

Mr Johnson said “we appear to be heading for a semi-Brexit” and had concluded he “must go” since he “cannot in all conscience champion” the proposals agreed by Cabinet on Friday.

“As I said then, the government now has a song to sing,” he wrote. “The trouble is that I have practised the words over the weekend and find that they stick in the throat.”

  • His resignation came hours after David Davis quit as Brexit secretary, followed by a junior minister
  • Days ago the cabinet had agreed to the PM’s Brexit plan at Chequers
  • But Mr Davis said he did not “believe” in the Chequers plan and was not the best person to deliver it
  • Prominent Leave campaigner Dominic Raab has been appointed new Brexit secretary

https://www.bbc.com/news/live/uk-politics-44762836

 

UK to review medicinal cannabis use

Like here are elsewhere in the world pressure has been growing in the UK to allow the use of cannabis products for medicinal use. Sick children have been used to highlight the issue, and the UK government has now announced a review of drug laws.

BBC: Medicinal cannabis use to be reviewed by government

The use of medicinal cannabis is to be reviewed, which could lead to more prescriptions of drugs made from the plant, the home secretary has said.

Speaking to the House of Commons, Mr Javid said the position “we find ourselves in currently is not satisfactory”.

The decision was prompted by recent high-profile cases of children with severe epilepsy being denied access to cannabis oil to control seizures.

The review would be held in two parts, Mr Javid told MPs. The first will make recommendations on which cannabis-based medicines might offer real medical and therapeutic benefits to patients.

In the second part, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs will consider whether changes should be made to the classification of these products after assessing “the balance of harms and public health needs”.

He said: “If the review identifies significant medical benefits, then we do intend to reschedule [change the rules].”

He said the cases of Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell had made him conclude it was time to review the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

He also announced that Alfie, from Kenilworth in Warwickshire, was being issued with a licence to receive cannabis-based drugs. The six-year-old has a very rare form of epilepsy that causes up to 150 seizures per month,

His family had originally applied to the government in April, saying his condition improved after using cannabis oil in the Netherlands.

Sounds similar to what has been happening here.

But Sajid Javid stressed the drug would remain banned for recreational use.

Separating medicinal use from recreational use is tricky – fears of opening the floodgates for recreational use often hold back politicians from acting on medicinal use, but that’s ridiculous given the widespread recreational use now.

It’s bizarre that recreational product is widely available but medicinal product is difficult to obtain.

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott welcomed Mr Javid’s statement, telling MPs that it was “long overdue”.

Lady Meacher, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group for drug policy reform – which two years ago called for cannabis-based drugs to be legalised – said the move was a “no brainer” which could benefit many people.

She said: “About one million people, probably, could benefit from medical cannabis – people with severe pain, obviously children with terrible epilepsy.

“There are 200,000 people in this country with uncontrolled epileptic seizures; MS sufferers, people with Parkinson’s, people with cancer.

“So there are just so many people who must be celebrating today, and I’m celebrating with them.”

She compared cannabis with morphine, and said it was “much, much safer, less addictive and has much, much less in the way of side effects”.

As we know here, opposition MPs can talk big reforms, but seem to get cold feet when in power.

The incoming Government here introduced the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill

This Bill amends the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975. The Bill will introduce an exception and a statutory defence for terminally ill people to possess and use illicit cannabis and to possess a cannabis utensil; provide a regulation-making power to enable the setting of standards that products manufactured, imported, and supplied under licence must meet; and amend Schedule 2 of the Act so that cannabidiol (CBD) and CBD products are no longer classed as controlled drugs.

This is currently at Select Committee stage. The limitation to “terminally ill people” has been strongly criticised. Hopefully sense will prevail after the committee considers public submissions.

 

 

Leave.EU breached multiple counts of electoral law

New Zealand isn’t the only country with far too slow, too weak electoral law.

The UK Electoral Commission has fined Leave.EU for multiple breaches of electoral law and referred the matter to the police, but the referendum result still stands.

BBC – Brexit: Leave.EU fined £70,000 for breaking electoral law during referendum

Campaign group Leave.EU has been fined £70,000 after an investigation into funding during the 2016 referendum.

The Electoral Commission concluded that the campaign group incorrectly reported what it spent during the referendum.

It found Leave.EU failed to report at least £77,380 of spending and exceeded the limit for non-party registered campaigners by at least 10%.

Peters on Commonwealth and EU trade

While Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters has been largely overshadowed by Jacinda Ardern as both visit Europe and the United Kingdom, he has been reported commenting on trade agreement possibilities.

Stuff: Winston Peters says Commonwealth countries open to multilateral trade deal

The bones of a Commonwealth free trade deal have been laid out and the EU is also turning an eye to the Pacific, says Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

He made the comments at the back end of a tour where he visited UK and EU leaders before meeting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in London to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

“There’s a whole lot of excitement about that and how we might again, put some flesh to an idea. It was [non-existent] two years ago, but since the 23 June, 2016 it’s become real.  That was very exciting. And a whole lot of countries, without saying too much about it realise there’s something very exciting and new about this.”

Peters said there was a hope that the foundations could be laid for a multilateral agreement within the Commonwealth countries, before the UK had left the European Union.

“And it was thrilling to get that sort of acceptance that we needed to talk more and do things far more often.

It is early days for all of these trade initiatives. The UK can’t do anything until they have sorted Brexit out, and while Germany and France have stated support for an EU agreement that has to be negotiated and approved by all member countries.

At least it gives Peters something to work on now that his Russian trade aims have been taken off the Government table.

“For decades we’ve seen enormous cynicism about the Commonwealth, don’t forget it started with eight countries. That’s a long time ago and it’s 53 now, possible 54 if the Maldives comes back. And that fact is that things have dramatically changed.”

He said the rest of the world “needs the Commonwealth” and the Commonwealth needed New Zealand to be a voice within it.

“It needs a country called New Zealand to show its kind of values that could be seriously important towards the economic security of the Pacific and indeed the world we live in.”

The world doesn’t need the Commonwealth. And the Commonwealth doesn’t need New Zealand – I’m sure it would manage to continue as a largely irrelevant grouping of countries without us.

But it does provide a chance to meet leaders from a bunch of countries every now and then, and to try to get things moving on trade deals. And we get to gather to do some sports every four years.

US launch missile attack on Syria

As threatened by Donald Trump earlier this week he has ordered a US missile strike against targets in Syria.

The UK and France  have also taken part in the attack.

Theresa May has announced the UK involvement.

It has been described as a one off limited attack, but there must be some risk of escalation.

Probably the key thing now will be Russia’s response, having warned against any punishment of Syria for alleged chemical weapons attacks.

Statement on Syria

Jacinda Ardern

RT HON JACINDA ARDERN

This morning the Government was advised that targeted military action would be taken in response to the latest chemical weapons attack in Syria, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says.

“The Government has always favoured diplomatic efforts and a multilateral approach. The use of the veto powers at the Security Council prevented that course of action. We have always condemned the use of the veto, including by Russia in this case.

“New Zealand therefore accepts why the US, UK and France have today responded to the grave violation of international law, and the abhorrent use of chemical weapons against civilians.

“The action was intended to prevent further such atrocities being committed against Syrian civilians.

“We stand firm in our condemnation of the use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta. This is clearly in breach of international law.

“It is now important that these issues are returned to the United Nations multilateral processes including the Security Council,” Jacinda Ardern said.

Nerve agent inspectors back UK over poisoning

Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have agreed with the UK findings that a nerve gas used in a poisoning in Salisbury, England over the identity of the nerve gas that was used.

RNZ: Russian spy poisoning: Nerve agent inspectors back UK

The international chemical weapons watchdog has confirmed the UK’s analysis of the type of nerve agent used in the Russian ex-spy poisoning.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons did not name the nerve agent as Novichok, but said it agreed with the UK’s findings on its identity.

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “There can be no doubt what was used. There remains no alternative explanation about who was responsible – only Russia has the means, motive and record.”

Mr Johnson said the UK had invited the OPCW to test the samples “to ensure strict adherence to international chemical weapons protocols”.

A team from the OPCW visited the UK on 19 March, 15 days after the Skripals were found slumped on a park bench in Salisbury and taken to hospital, along with a police officer who was among the first on the scene.

The OPCW said it received information about the medical conditions of the Skripals and Det Sgt Nick Bailey, it collected their blood samples, and it gathered samples from the site in Salisbury.

The OPCW does identify the toxic chemical by its complex formula but only in the classified report that has not been made public.

In its summary, which has been published online, the report notes the toxic chemical was of “high purity”.

The BBC’s diplomatic correspondent James Landale said: “This is understood to strengthen the argument that this substance came from Russia because it is more likely to have been created by a state actor with the capability to make the nerve agent.”

This will add weight to the pressure on Russia over the poisoning. They deny any involvement.

Russian retaliation over poisoning expulsions, NZ excluded

Twenty nine countries expelled Russian diplomats over the nerve gas poisoning in Salisbury, England – with the notable exception of New Zealand. Russia threatened retaliation against those countries who joined the UK measures, and they have followed through.

BBC: Spy poisoning: Russia escalates spy row with new expulsions

Russia has announced further measures against UK diplomats while at the same time declaring tit-for-tat expulsions of officials from 23 other countries.

It has told the British ambassador to cut staffing to the size of the Russian mission in the UK.

Moscow has rejected UK accusations that it is behind the nerve agent attack on an ex-spy and his daughter in the UK.

However, some 150 Russians have since been expelled by mainly Western countries.

Russia initially hit back at the UK, but then announced 60 US expulsions. On Friday it called in a string of foreign ambassadors with news that their own countries’ measures were being matched.

British diplomats left Moscow a week ago, but ambassador Laurie Bristow was summoned back to the foreign ministry for additional punishment.

It’s not immediately obvious what it means in practice, but it’s clear that Russia sees Britain as the ringleader of an international conspiracy which resulted in the biggest mass expulsion of Russian diplomats in history.

A number of countries backed the UK with their own expulsions, and Russia is also retaliating against them.

Twenty-nine countries have expelled 145 Russian officials in solidarity with the UK – and Nato has also ordered 10 Russians out of its mission in Belgium.

The US expelled the largest single number – 60 diplomats – and closed the Russian consulate general in Seattle.

Russia reciprocated on Thursday declaring 58 US diplomats in Moscow and two in the city of Yekaterinburg to be “personae non gratae”. It also announced the closure of the US consulate in St Petersburg.

On Friday, ambassadors from Albania, Australia, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Ukraine were told to send home staff from their missions – corresponding to the same number of Russians their countries had expelled.

A statement by the Russian foreign ministry also said that Russia “reserves the right to take retaliatory measures” against Belgium, Hungary, Georgia and Montenegro – countries that had joined the co-ordinated action against Russia “at the last moment”.

But New Zealand has remained on the sidelines. The Press writes on The Government’s Russian dilemma

At last count, 26 countries have expelled Russian diplomats and intelligence agents in a remarkable response to the nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal​ and his daughter Yulia.

The BBC report said that 29 countries had acted against Russia.

The leaders of the UK, the USA, Germany and France made a rare joint statement that stressed there is no plausible alternative to Russia being responsible for the attack on British soil. They described a wider pattern of “irresponsible behaviour”. Russia’s denials have not been taken seriously.

But so far, New Zealand has not joined the other 26 countries in solidarity, although all four of our Five Eyes partners – the UK, the US, Canada and Australia – have led or followed in the mass expulsion of agents and diplomats.

The Government has been criticised at home over it’s vague and slow responses, and ridiculed abroad for claiming there were no spies here that could be expelled.

There is another way to view the reluctance of the Ardern Government to jump on the anti-Russia bandwagon and that is to see it in a proud tradition of New Zealand independence that would be recognisable to previous Labour prime ministers such as Norman Kirk, David Lange and Helen Clark. There is a streak in the New Zealand psyche that resists being anyone’s puppet.

But it has raised questions about the pro-Russian inclinations of Winston Peters in particular.

It is more likely that the Ardern Government’s motivations are submerged in murkier politics as far as the wider public is concerned.

The public is more likely to share the UK’s worries about the Vladimir Putin regime and to recognise the symbolic value of expulsion.

Some may even see more cynical thinking behind our neutral stance. Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has been keen to reopen negotiations with Russia for the Free Trade Agreement that was scuppered after the Ukrainian crisis in 2014. Even this month, Peters seemed unwilling to condemn Russia after news emerged of the Skripal poisoning. He also doubted Russian involvement in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and US election meddling.

Ardern has appeared to have difficulty dealing with balancing the request for solidarity with allied countries and the Russian leaning of Peters.

Newsroom: Ardern finally acts to ban Russian spies

Facing accusations of being soft and becoming isolated on Russia, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has moved to take some concrete action in solidarity with New Zealand’s allies. Ardern announced late on Thursday that New Zealand would impose travel restrictions on individuals expelled by other countries after a recent nerve agent attack in Britain.

The Opposition questioned why New Zealand appeared soft on Russia and was not joining with its allies in a more concrete condemnation of Russia.

Concerns about New Zealand’s stance have grown after Foreign Minister Winston Peters refused earlier this month to accept that Russia had been involved in the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, despite internationally accredited reports to that affect. Peters has also advocated further trade negotiations with Russia, forcing his Prime Minister to say any talks were suspended indefinitely because of the nerve agent attack.

Peters again muddied the waters on Thursday in Parliament when he was asked whether Russia was responsible for the attack, appearing not to back Britain’s more robust assessment.

The Government faced increased scrutiny as the Prime Minister’s assertion the Government could not find any spies in New Zealand was ridiculed in the international media.

Former KGB agent Boris Karpichkov told Newshub Ardern was either naive or misinformed if she thought there were no spies in New Zealand.

University of Waikato Professor Alexander Gillespie said the Prime Minister had been poorly briefed on her response.

“She’s getting some very bad advice somewhere along the line,” he said. “Someone in Foreign Affairs should have explained to her that this is not about whether we have spies in the county or not. This is a question about solidarity with our allies”.

Gillespie said the Government could find the lowest order person in the embassy and ask them to leave as an act of solidarity.

But Ardern appeared to have put appeasing Peters ahead of international solidarity. Her international mana is likely to have taken a hit over this, and Foreign Minister Peters may find his job abroad a bit harder. If he waffles vaguely on international visits like he does in Parliament and in media interviews New Zealand’s international image is in for a difficult time.

 

Continuing Facebook data scandal

More revelations in the Facebook data scandal, and Mark Zuckerberg has agreed to testify before the US Congress, but will send a deputy to talk to UK MPs.

Theresa May calls for long term response to Russia

The spat between the United Kingdom and Russia over the alleged nerve gas poisoning continues to escalate with UK Prime Minister Theresa May calling for a long term response, after a growing number of countries (New Zealand excluded) expelling Russian diplomats.

Reuters: Britain’s May calls for ‘long-term response’ to Russia after spy poisoning

British Prime Minister Theresa May called on Tuesday for a “long-term response” by the West to the security threat from Russia as NATO followed member states in expelling Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a double agent in England.

In the most sweeping such action against Moscow since the height of the Cold War, the United States and European Union members plan to expel scores of Russian diplomats in action against the Kremlin for the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter which they have blamed on Russia.

Russia, which denies any part in the March 4 attack on the Skripals, says the West’s action is a “provocative gesture” and has said it will respond.

The coordinated action among Western allies is seen as a huge diplomatic coup for May whose country is preparing to exit the EU bloc and may have had doubts about how much support she could count on.

Speaking to senior cabinet members in London on Tuesday, May said countries had acted against Russia not just out of solidarity but because they recognized the threat it posed.

Other diplomat/spy expulsions:

  • NATO 7 (plus 3 others pending)
  • Australia 2
  • USA 60 (their largest expulsion since 1986)
  • New Zealand 0

Russia has threatened symmetrical expulsions.

Bloomberg: Trump’s Russian Expulsions Leave Moscow Stunned

The MOEX Russia index of stocks closed down more than 2 percent, its steepest slide in almost a year, led by Gazprom PJSC and Sberbank PJSC. The ruble erased gains, trading little-changed at 57.3075 per dollar as of 7:12 p.m. in Moscow. The government’s 10-year ruble bonds dropped, lifting the yield five basis points to 7.06 percent. Russian credit-default swaps climbed to the highest since Jan. 1.

While the nerve gas poisoning has precipitated this it may be just a final straw.

Reuters: Before expulsions, a brick-by-brick hardening of U.S. stance toward Russia

America’s most sweeping expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War may have seemed like a dramatic escalation in Washington’s response to Moscow, but the groundwork for a more confrontational U.S. posture had been taking shape for months — in plain sight.

While President Donald Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Moscow has dominated headlines, officials at the U.S. State Department, Pentagon and White House made a series of lower-profile decisions over the past year to counter Russia around the world – from Afghanistan to North Korea to Syria.

The State Department earlier in March announced plans to provide anti-tank missiles to Ukraine to defend against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Trump’s predecessor as president, Barack Obama, had declined to do so over fears of provoking Moscow.

In Syria last month, the U.S. military killed or injured as many as 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked private military firm after they attacked U.S. and U.S.-backed forces. The White House, meanwhile, firmly tied Russia to deadly strikes on civilians in Syria’s eastern Ghouta region.

In particular Europe is joining in taking a stand. NY Times: How an Outraged Europe Agreed to a Hard Line on Putin

The European Union is not usually a model of decisiveness, but the expulsion of Russian diplomats across the Continent on Monday was a dramatic and pointed gesture. It came in concert with a similar, larger move by the United States, which expelled 60 Russians, and signaled a new, tougher effort to punish bad behavior by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

“I can’t think of any previous occasion when so many countries have coordinated on expulsions,” said Ian Bond, a former British diplomat in Moscow, adding that for many of the smaller countries, “it’s the first time since the Cold War that they’ve even expelled one Russian diplomat.”

Russia is always a tricky issue for the European Union, given its critical role as an energy supplier to the Continent, as well as the divided opinion among leaders on how confrontational, or not, the bloc should be with Mr. Putin.

But the March 4 poisoning in Salisbury, England, of the former Russian spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, crossed a line. The British authorities say they were exposed to the nerve agent Novichok, representing the first use of a chemical agent on European soil since before the Second World War.

The brazen nature of the act was too much for European officials to ignore.

“This is an intelligence operation carried out with intelligence capacity with weaponized, weapons-grade chemical agents,” one senior European official said. “It has taken matters to an entirely different level.”

Alluding to Russia’s earlier aggressions in Ukraine, the senior official added, “Russia keeps violating international law in Crimea and Ukraine and unwritten rules on nonintervention, and now there is the use of nerve agents in Britain.”

Mr. Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany were prominent supporters of Mrs. May’s call for action, having planned tactics with Britain before the dinner. The French had provided the British with technical assistance on analyzing the poisoning case and come to the same conclusion. And when the Franco-German couple agree, others tend to fall into line, even if grumpily.

The decision was finalized Monday morning, as European Union ambassadors met in Brussels to describe what each country was prepared to do.

tensions are likely to continue and will probably increase as Russia retaliates.

Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the data war

I often seen people doing and sharing surveys and quizzes on Facebook. They always looked looked suspicious to me – they looked designed to suck people in.

And it turns out some of them were exactly that – for a nefarious reason. They were used to gather data and compile personality profiles of hundreds of millions of people, and then those people were targeted with “rumour, disinformation and fake news” to influence them in elections.

The process was used experimentally in many elections in many countries – I don’t know if New Zealand was subjected to subliminal coercion (journalists?). The first big election that it was tried on was the Brexit vote in the UK, which surprisingly swung to a vote to exit the European Union.

Then it was used in the US election which resulted in Donald Trump being elected against the odds (aided by a flawed campaign and a flawed campaigner, Hillary Clinton).

Now Cambridge Analytica and the use and abuse of Facebook is being exposed.

Bloomberg: Facebook Suspends Trump Election Data Firm for Policy Violations

  • Data harvested from 50 million Facebook accounts: N.Y. Times
  • Fighting ‘culture war,’ ex-Cambridge Analytica employee says

Facebook Inc. suspended Cambridge Analytica, a data company that helped President Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election and which may have collected data from 50 million Facebook profiles without their owners’ permission.

The social-networking company said in a blog post Friday that Cambridge Analytica received some user data through an app developer on its social network, violating its policies. In 2015, Facebook said Cambridge Analytica certified that it had destroyed the information.

“Several days ago, we received reports that, contrary to the certifications we were given, not all data was deleted,” Facebook said in a statement. Cambridge Analytica and parent Strategic Communication Laboratories have been suspended from the social network, “pending further information,” Facebook said.

Cambridge Analytica said in a Saturday statement it did nothing illegal and is ​in touch with Facebook in order to resolve the matter as quickly as possible.

Originally funded by Robert Mercer, the conservative political donor and former co-chief executive officer of Renaissance Technologies, Cambridge uses data to reach voters with hyper-targeted messaging, including on Facebook and other online services. It was hired to help with voter outreach by the Trump campaign, whose former campaign manager, Steve Bannon, had been on the company’s board.

Steve Bannon was closely connected to this – and became closely connected to the Trump campaign.

Now one of the people deeply involved is blowing the whistle:The Cambridge Analytica Files 

‘I created Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool’: meet the data war whistleblower

For more than a year we’ve been investigating Cambridge Analytica and its links to the Brexit Leave campaign in the UK and Team Trump in the US presidential election. Now, 28-year-old Christopher Wylie goes on the record to discuss his role in hijacking the profiles of millions of Facebook users in order to target the US electorate.

Starting in 2007, Stillwell, while a student, had devised various apps for Facebook, one of which, a personality quiz called myPersonality, had gone viral. Users were scored on “big five” personality traits – Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism – and in exchange, 40% of them consented to give him access to their Facebook profiles.

Suddenly, there was a way of measuring personality traits across the population and correlating scores against Facebook “likes” across millions of people.

The research was original, groundbreaking and had obvious possibilities. “They had a lot of approaches from the security services,” a member of the centre told me. “There was one called You Are What You Like and it was demonstrated to the intelligence services. And it showed these odd patterns; that, for example, people who liked ‘I hate Israel’ on Facebook also tended to like Nike shoes and KitKats.

“There are agencies that fund research on behalf of the intelligence services. And they were all over this research. That one was nicknamed Operation KitKat.”

The defence and military establishment were the first to see the potential of the research.

That should be a concern to everyone – this is not the Russian establishment, it is the US and UK establishment, which New Zealand has close links to.

“And then I came across a paper about how personality traits could be a precursor to political behaviour, and it suddenly made sense. Liberalism is correlated with high openness and low conscientiousness, and when you think of Lib Dems they’re absent-minded professors and hippies. They’re the early adopters… they’re highly open to new ideas. And it just clicked all of a sudden.”

T…the job was research director across the SCL group, a private contractor that has both defence and elections operations. Its defence arm was a contractor to the UK’s Ministry of Defence and the US’s Department of Defense, among others. Its expertise was in “psychological operations” – or psyops – changing people’s minds not through persuasion but through “informational dominance”, a set of techniques that includes rumour, disinformation and fake news.

SCL Elections had used a similar suite of tools in more than 200 elections around the world, mostly in undeveloped democracies that Wylie would come to realise were unequipped to defend themselves.

It turned out the the UK and US democracies were unable to defend themselves either.

A few months later, in autumn 2013, Wylie met Steve Bannon. At the time, he was editor-in-chief of Breitbart, which he had brought to Britain to support his friend Nigel Farage in his mission to take Britain out of the European Union.

“[Bannon] got it immediately. He believes in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture. And fashion trends are a useful proxy for that. Trump is like a pair of Uggs, or Crocs, basically. So how do you get from people thinking ‘Ugh. Totally ugly’ to the moment when everyone is wearing them? That was the inflection point he was looking for.”

But Wylie wasn’t just talking about fashion. He had recently been exposed to a new discipline: “information operations”, which ranks alongside land, sea, air and space in the US military’s doctrine of the “five-dimensional battle space”. His brief ranged across the SCL Group – the British government has paid SCL to conduct counter-extremism operations in the Middle East, and the US Department of Defense has contracted it to work in Afghanistan.

I tell him that another former employee described the firm as “MI6 for hire”, and I’d never quite understood it.

“It’s like dirty MI6 because you’re not constrained. There’s no having to go to a judge to apply for permission. It’s normal for a ‘market research company’ to amass data on domestic populations. And if you’re working in some country and there’s an auxiliary benefit to a current client with aligned interests, well that’s just a bonus.”

It was Bannon who took this idea to the Mercers: Robert Mercer – the co-CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, who used his billions to pursue a rightwing agenda, donating to Republican causes and supporting Republican candidates – and his daughter Rebekah.

“It didn’t make any sense to me,” says Wylie. “I didn’t understand either the email or the pitch presentation we did. Why would a Russian oil company want to target information on American voters?”

Mueller’s investigation traces the first stages of the Russian operation to disrupt the 2016 US election back to 2014, when the Russian state made what appears to be its first concerted efforts to harness the power of America’s social media platforms, including Facebook. And it was in late summer of the same year that Cambridge Analytica presented the Russian oil company with an outline of its datasets, capabilities and methodology.

The presentation had little to do with “consumers”. Instead, documents show it focused on election disruption techniques.

Russia, Facebook, Trump, Mercer, Bannon, Brexit. Every one of these threads runs through Cambridge Analytica. Even in the past few weeks, it seems as if the understanding of Facebook’s role has broadened and deepened. The Mueller indictments were part of that, but Paul-Olivier Dehaye – a data expert and academic based in Switzerland, who published some of the first research into Cambridge Analytica’s processes – says it’s become increasingly apparent that Facebook is “abusive by design”. If there is evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, it will be in the platform’s data flows, he says.

Millions of people’s personal information was stolen and used to target them in ways they wouldn’t have seen, and couldn’t have known about, by a mercenary outfit, Cambridge Analytica, who, Wylie says, “would work for anyone”. Who would pitch to Russian oil companies. Would they subvert elections abroad on behalf of foreign governments?

It occurs to me to ask Wylie this one night.

“Yes.”

Nato or non-Nato?

“Either. I mean they’re mercenaries. They’ll work for pretty much anyone who pays.”

It’s an incredible revelation. It also encapsulates all of the problems of outsourcing – at a global scale, with added cyberweapons. And in the middle of it all are the public – our intimate family connections, our “likes”, our crumbs of personal data, all sucked into a swirling black hole that’s expanding and growing and is now owned by a politically motivated billionaire.

The Facebook data is out in the wild. And for all Wylie’s efforts, there’s no turning the clock back.

What to take from all of this? It’s difficult to know. The Wylie revelations could be fake news. Or this story could reveal a propaganda genie that is now out of the bottle, an insidious corruption of democracy.

We are all influenced with the news and views we see online. It’s impossible for us to know whether we have been targeted, whether we have been sucked in, whether we have been influenced by people deliberately trying to swing elections.

Using political propaganda is nothing new, it has been done in various ways for a long time. But using the power and speed of the Internet, the potential is certainly there to take propaganda to a new and dangerous level.

How dangerous? Enough to steer the UK towards chaos as they try to extract themselves from the European Union. Enough to install a chaotic president in the US. Enough to elect an unlikely president in France? Enough to create a precarious political balance in Germany?

What about New Zealand? See Was New Zealand’s election rigged by foreign powers?