Theresa May and her husband Philip with Lord Mayor of London Charles Bowman and wife Samantha arriving at the annual Lord Mayor's Banquet at the Guildhall in London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday November 13, 2017. Photo credit should read: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Theresa May and her husband Philip with Lord Mayor of London Charles Bowman and his wife Samantha at the Lord Mayor's banquet in London on Monday © PA

Security is always a safe bet for Theresa May when the chips are down. On Monday evening the UK prime minister put aside the Brexit and leadership travails of her government to focus instead on Russia. In surprisingly unequivocal terms, she castigated Vladimir Putin’s efforts to disrupt the democratic process in her annual Mansion House speech. Russia, she said, was “deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photoshopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the west and undermine our institutions”.

Mrs May, who is usually cautious on geopolitical matters, spoke confidently about how this will be a priority for her government. She said the UK would “take the necessary actions to counter Russian activity”, citing the government’s efforts to strengthen its cyber security protections and tighten financial regulations in an attempt to halt the flow of money from corrupt Russian activities.

She did not cite any specific electoral processes in which Russia may have tried to meddle, but the US presidential election must have been on her mind. Mrs May’s blunt remarks could not have contrasted more with Donald Trump’s weak response — initially saying he believed the Russian president’s denials of election interference, but later backtracking in the face of unfurling evidence to the contrary — not least from his own intelligence agencies.

Mrs May’s tough stance on Russia follows a trajectory of being more critical of Mr Trump and returning to the principles that have traditionally united the west. Her words will receive a good hearing in much of the US establishment, which shares her concerns, as well as across Europe which has also suffered at the hands of Russian interference.

Germany, for example, was alerted to Russia’s influence by the “Lisa case” — a false news story about a girl who had reportedly been raped by Arab migrants. The eastern members of the EU have the most to be concerned about (thanks to geographical and historical proximity), hence the formation of the StratCom task force two years ago to promote and strengthen the bloc’s influence. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign relations chief, has recently requested more resources for the unit after Spain raised concerns that Russia may have meddled in the Catalonia independence vote.

The UK would do well to work with the EU on this topic, even as it heads towards the exit door. For Mrs May, there is a risk that the Russia question will hit closer to home. For the first time, Facebook has raised the possibility that there may have been Russian interference in last year’s Brexit vote. That poses a problem for a prime minister who will be remembered for implementing the outcome of the referendum.

“We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed,” Mrs May stated in her speech. It is a noble aspiration for the future, but may come a little too late for some liberal democracies.

sebastian.payne@ft.com

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