Chris Bryant, the former Labour minister and outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin’s record on civil rights, last night made accusations relating to a “smear” campaign after an old photo of him in his underwear was posted online.
The picture of Mr Bryant was posted on the website of a pressure group called Conservative Friends of Russia (CFoR), alongside an article attacking his chairmanship of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Russia.
The photograph was later removed from the website, but it triggered the resignation of the former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, from his position as honorary president of CFoR. Mr Rifkind was quoted last night as saying he had long-standing concerns about the group but that the attack on Mr Bryant was “the last straw.”
Mr Rifkind said that Mr Bryant’s suggestion of links between the group and the Russian Embassy were a “slightly childish counter-accusation”.
“They ran a pretty nasty smear campaign which they chose to couch in a rather puerile way that was verging on the homophobic,” Mr Bryant said. “This is no way to do politics. If a photograph like that had been used in a parliamentary election, the reaction would have been ballistic.”
According to Mr Rifkind, “the charge of homophobia is a smokescreen to divert attention from the real issue that the group was due to be removed from the register because it missed the date of its AGM and that the short notice period makes it difficult for any potential opponents to stand against him.”
Mr Bryant, who is gay, is convinced that there is a campaign to get him removed from the chairmanship of the All Party Group due to his campaigning in Parliament against civil rights abuses in Russia, including the cases of the businessman Sergei Magnitsky, the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the jailed members of the feminist punk band, Pussy Riot. “That’s why the Russian government cares about who is the chairman of the All Party group,” he said.
The All-Party group is holding its annual meeting on Monday, when Mr Bryant will stand for re-election. Two years ago, Mr Bryant ousted the previous chairman, the Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock, who was subsequently revealed to have been having an affair with a Russian woman, Ekaterina “Katia” Zatuliveter, 39 years his junior. She was threatened with deportation because MI5 suspected her of being a spy, but an appeal tribunal found no evidence to support the accusation.
The article attacking Mr Bryant’s chairmanship was written by Richard Royal, the chairman of CFoR, a professional lobbyist and Conservative Party activist best known as a spokesman for the Ladbrokes chain of betting shops. It was backed up by an email widely circulated by Mr Royal, accusing Mr Bryant of “incompetence.”
Mr Royal’s email also referred to Mr Bryant’s work as a paid columnist for The Independent, which is owned by the Russian father and son, Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev, and his work with the PR company Bell Pottinger, whose clients include the exiled Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky.
CFoR has attracted controversy since it was launched on 21 August, at the London home of the Russian ambassador, Alexander Yakovenko, where 250 guests were served vodka and shashlik, because of suspicions that it was too close to the Putin government.