Spies who came in from the slush
Stories about Russian spies are being used to stoke up tensions and undermine Labour, writes Eddie Ford
You do have to ask yourself at times why certain stories pop up when they do, and it does not necessarily make you a conspiracy theorist to suspect that it might not always be purely coincidental. Hence last week we had the rather odd story in The Times about Michael Foot, the former Labour leader, being a “Soviet asset” operating under the codename of ‘Boot’- paid to put out pro-Soviet propaganda.
Of course, this is an old story resurrected. Foot sued the same paper 23 years ago when they made the same allegations against him - winning substantial damages. This time round there does not appear to be any substantive new evidence or proof to make such an outlandish claim: rather it is merely repeated in a new book, The spy and the traitor, by Ben Macintyre - the author of bestselling works about spying and espionage, including Agent Zigzag, Operation Mincemeat and the quite interesting, A spy among friends: Kim Philby and the great betrayal.
What needs to be immediately noted is that the original allegations against Foot were made by a Soviet defector and MI6 double agent called Oleg Gordievsky - notorious for mixing up accurate and inaccurate information, peppered with personal grudges and all manner of resentments. Macintyre’s new book, rather unsensationally, states that MI6 agents had been told about Gordievsky’s claims in the summer of 1982, but they concluded that the Labour leader had not been a “spy or conscious agent” - instead, apparently, he had been used for “disinformation purposes” and received the equivalent of £37,000 in today’s money. We also discover - at least if we believe Macintyre - that MI6 had been concerned about the “constitutional implications” of a “politician with a KGB history” becoming prime minister.
Frankly, the allegation against Foot is risible. He might have been a left reformist manoeuvrer and creature of the Labourite bureaucracy, but he was certainly no friend of the Soviet Union - quite the opposite, in fact, given his patriotic pro-imperialism. John Foot, a great nephew of the former Labour leader, tweeted angrily that his great uncle was a “lifelong anti-Stalinist” and “friend of Orwell” - whilst Jeremy Corbyn declared that Michael Foot “loved this country”, which is “why he wanted to make it better for everyone”.
Perhaps even more ludicrous is the idea that Foot was paid by the Soviet Union - or by anybody else, for that matter. Foot came from a wealthy family of Liberal politicians and top colonial administrators. He studied philosophy, politics and economics (what else?) at Oxford University. But, as noted by many, he lived a very modest lifestyle - no fancy cars or jet-setting, no elite restaurants or clubs, no high-class hookers, or bubbly for breakfast. Hence the famous incident of the donkey jacket that wasn’t at the Cenotaph in 1981, which provoked one Labour MP to liken the Labour leader to an “out-of-work navvy”. In fact it was a relatively expensive duffle coat - the queen mother apparently told him that it was “a smart, sensible coat for a day like this” (Foot later donated the coat to the People’s History Museum in Manchester). In other words, he did not need or want Soviet money. Genuine friends of the Soviet Union did it for nothing.
Ben Macintyre himself writes that Michael Foot was not a Soviet spy, but does view him as “stunningly naive” - without presenting a proper explanation as to why he thinks that.1 So we have to go back to our original point: why is The Times running this bit of nonsense now? Perhaps the paper is softening us up for future stories about Jeremy Corbyn and other leading Labour figures, especially if there is a snap election at the end of the year. After all, this has already been tried before, albeit unsuccessfully. Back in February the rightwing press ran with lurid stories about the Labour leader being an agent for the Czechoslovakian secret service, the StB - with The Sun splashing the headline, “Corbyn and the commie spy”.
Of course, it was all total baloney. The boring reality is that after Jeremy Corbyn toured Czechoslovakia on a motorbike holiday in August 1977, he warranted a brief mention in state security records and then in 1986 met a Czech diplomat, Ján Sarkocy, in the House of Commons - who later turned out to be a StB officer. Talk about underwhelming. Using this criteria, just about every MP in parliament must be a spy of some sort. But that did not prevent excitable Tory MPs and others demanding that Jeremy Corbyn release his Stasi file, as he once went on a similar holiday to East Germany with Diane Abbott - alas for his critics, the Stasi records agency found absolutely no documents on Corbyn. In the end, Jeremy Corbyn threatened legal action, while a Tory MP, Ben Bradley, was forced to issue an apology for his defamatory allegations against the Labour leader and made a “substantial” donation to charity to make up for his sins.
But we can expect far more stories like this, and far worse, if Corbyn manages to hang on as leader despite the ‘anti-Semitic’ smear campaign and the treachery of the Parliamentary Labour Party. All means necessary must be used to depose him and bring the party safely back under the control of the right.
Then we had the undeniably entertaining stories concerning two Russian nationals, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov (assuming for now that they are their real names, seeing how there are no known records of their existence before 2009) - both believed to be members of Russian military intelligence (GRU). Last week the British authorities formally charged them with conspiracy to murder Sergei and Yulia Skripal and detective sergeant Nick Bailey in Salisbury - the former Russian spy and his daughter were found collapsed on March 4; Bailey becoming ill after trying to help them. They were apparent victims of some form of poisoning.
The subsequent investigation involved 250 specialist counter-terrorism officers and about 180 military personnel, who were hastily deployed to Salisbury to help remove vehicles and objects that may have been contaminated. The chief medical officer for England, professor Dame Sally Davies, went on to the airwaves to inform us that the risk to public safety was “low”, but there was “some concern” that prolonged exposure could cause health problems. Personnel from the nearby Porton Down military research centre identified the nerve agent used in the attempted murder as Novichok - which we were told could only have been deployed by a “state actor”. Suspicion immediately fell upon Russia. Adding to the drama, on June 30 a similar poisoning appeared to have happened in Amesbury, seven miles from Salisbury - with a man finding the nerve agent in a fake perfume bottle and giving it to his girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess. She sprayed it on her wrist, it seems, and quickly fell ill, dying on July 8 (the man survived). According to the police, this was not a targeted attack, but a result of the way the nerve agent was disposed of after the poisoning in Salisbury.
In a grimly humorous postscript, showing that nerves are still on edge in Salisbury, on September 16 two people fell ill at a restaurant 300 metres away from the location where the Skripals had eaten before collapsing - causing the restaurant, a nearby pub, and surrounding streets to be cordoned off, with some customers and residents under observation or prevented from leaving the area. Police later said there was “nothing to suggest that Novichok” was the cause of the two people falling ill. Needless to say, the Salisbury poisonings were immediately used by Tory MPs and the rightwing press to bash Jeremy Corbyn for his supposed pro-Russian sympathies.
Now, as we have commented upon before in this publication, when confronted by incidents like this, the only rational approach is to apply Occam’s razor - the most likely or simpler explanation is nearly always the correct one. Unlike a lot of crime fiction and movies, where the most esoteric theory seems to come first - normally a serial killer with a fixation on re-enacting parts of the Bible or collecting human body parts. But real police officers know that most women are murdered by their husbands or partners - look no further. Similarly, why would MI5 - as some insist - want to murder Sergei Skripal, a man who sold out 600 Russian intelligence agents to the British? There might possibly be another, far more obvious explanation. If MI5 for whatever bizarre reason was responsible for the attempted murder, then people in and around the agency would quickly talk about such a monstrous action - information would leak out, then all hell would break loose. You just cannot keep things like that secret for long.
If anything, the September 13 ‘interview’ with Petrov and Boshirov on Russian TV just underlines their complicity - though it could certainly be nominated for a comedy award. Showing an impressive command of Wikipedia, our comic double act (claiming to be innocent sports nutritionists) told us that their friends in Russia had been saying to them for ages that they should visit the “wonderful” city of Salisbury and its “famous” cathedral - which, apparently, is “famous not only in Europe but in the whole world for its 123-metre spire and for its clock, one of the first created in the world”.2 Strangely, their friends had never implored them to visit St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey.
The pair’s initial plan, they said, had been to make it a day trip - hoping to visit not only the cathedral, but Stonehenge and the ancient settlement of Old Sarum, north of the city centre. But the poor things had not been prepared for the intense cold of a Wiltshire spring, which must have come as a bit of a shock after the blazing heat of a Moscow winter: “We couldn’t do it because there was muddy slush everywhere” - meaning “we got wet”, getting “drenched up to our knees”. Therefore, defeated, they got the next train back to London. The following day, no longer obstructed by the dreadful slush, they headed back to Salisbury, enjoying at last the cathedral’s glorious spire - and “maybe approached Skripal’s house” - but, of course, they “didn’t know where it was located”. Fair enough. They denied using Novichok, because it would be “silly for decent lads to have women’s perfume” - obviously proper Russian men. Sadly, they never got to visit Stonehenge.
Well, if you believe that, then you will believe anything. Stories circulated in various newspapers that there are differences within the Russian securocracy between the FSB and the GRU - the pair being put on TV to punish them for a botched operation. Then again, that could be complete nonsense as well. Whilst, as mentioned earlier, I do not believe for a minute that MI5 was responsible for the Salisbury poisonings, it certainly has an interest in stoking it up - rather than suppressing it, as it has done before. This could be partially due to the ongoing geopolitical tussle with Russia and general spy-mania - but perhaps also, as with the Michael Foot allegations, to keep stirring the anti-red pot, for a time when it might become useful again.