Former shadow cabinet minister Barry Gardiner, who received hundreds of thousands of pounds from an alleged Chinese government agent, has said he was “deeply distressed” to learn one of his biggest donors had been illegally trying to influence British politicians.
The Brent North MP received more than £500,000 over six years from Christine Lee, who is now accused of being an employee of the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party. However, Mr Gardiner insists Ms Lee “gained no political advantage for the Chinese state from me”.
The link between Mr Gardiner and Ms Lee – a Chinese lawyer, whose central London firm acts as a legal adviser to the capital’s Chinese embassy – was first reported on in 2017. But it was thrust into the spotlight on Thursday when Ms Lee was accused by security agency MI5 of covert “political interference”.
During his career, Mr Gardiner has enjoyed a number of ministerial and shadow cabinet roles. Having served as a junior minister in Tony Blair’s government, he became shadow energy minister under Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.
After a string of shadow cabinet resignations in June 2015, Mr Gardiner was promoted to replace Lisa Nandy as shadow energy secretary before eventually taking on the role of shadow trade secretary, which he stayed in until 2020 when Sir Keir Starmer became leader of the opposition.
Since re-joining Labour’s backbenches, Mr Gardiner has kept a fairly low profile, besides making headlines in the summer of 2020 when he broke Covid social distancing guidelines to join thousands of Black Lives Matter protestors outside parliament.
Defending his actions at the time, having been criticised by colleagues such as Ms Nandy – now the shadow levelling-up secretary – and the current Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis , Mr Gardiner said he felt conflicted between his desire to “set an example” over coronavirus measures and also “call out racial injustice”.
While Mr Gardiner, who is originally from Glasgow and is married to wife Caroline Anne Smith, has repeatedly insisted Ms Lee received “a very poor investment” from the donations she gave to him, critics remain unsure about some of the details surround the pair’s relationship.
One such particular is the fact Ms Lee’s son, Daniel Wilkes, was until this morning employed by Mr Gardiner as his diary manager. In an interview with Sky News on Thursday, the Labour MP said upon learning Ms Lee’s status, he “immediately contacted her son … and I asked him to tender his resignation forthwith, which he did”.
During the same interview, he assured viewers he had “spoken openly and frankly” with the security services “for a number of years” about his engagement with Ms Lee. The Labour MP added he had been told by the same security services they had “no evidence at all” that the money his office received came from the Chinese state. He admitted he discussed Labour policy with the Chinese agent but insisted it was never “in great detail”.
Since Thursdays’s news broke about Ms Lee, Mr Gardiner has also moved to highlight his past criticisms of the Chinese government, such as on climate change issues and human rights concerns.
That did not stop some commentators branding him a “complete idiot” for his professional relationship with Ms Lee.
But he is far from alone in Westminster for having links to the alleged Chinese agent . Ms Lee was singled out for praise by then prime minister Theresa May for “promoting engagement, understanding, and co-operation between the Chinese and British communities”. She was also pictured with David Cameron and former Labour deputy Tom Watson.