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Spy story that fails the credibility test

The idea that Michael Foot was a KGB agent, or that anyone thought he was, seems farcical

James Fenton
Monday 20 February 1995 00:02 GMT

The front-page claim by yesterday's Sunday Times that, according to the KGB, "Michael Foot was our agent", is welcome news in this sense: it is evidence that the Sunday Times believes that the next general election is already upon us. Good. Let's have that election, have it now, get it over with. It is a pity that it cannot be clean, but let's just have that fight.

Last time around, there was Neil Kinnock's Kremlin connection - a Sunday Times story which, when closely examined, turned out to be based on the fact that Kinnock had the kind of contact with Soviet diplomats you would expect a potential prime minister to have, and that those diplomats cultivated Kinnock in the way any diplomat will seek to cultivate any leading politician in his area of responsibility, because that is what the job is.

Yesterday's story, colourfully written by a certain David Leppard, seeks to persuade us that Mr Foot (or "Agent Boot") was an "agent of influence" of the KGB Colonel Mikhail Lyubimov from 1961 to 1965, that his status was downgraded to "confidential contact" after 1968, that an attempt was made to reactivate him in l985(!), but that this was blocked because Oleg Gordievsky, the double agent to whom the task was allotted, referred the matter to MI6.

Our boys, it appears, were shocked. They ordered Gordievsky to disobey Moscow, as it would be "too embarrassing". Embarrassing indeed to be seeking to turn Michael Foot into a master spy when he was in his early seventies.

Mr Leppard's article, in fact, provides a good example of how bad writing can reveal sloppy thinking: "Lyubimov drew Foot into his net. For the Tories, the Russian spy's luncheon invitations had been to Prunier's, Simpson's and other establishment staging posts. For men such as Foot, it had to be the Gay Hussar.

"Left-wing luminaries chatted the 1960s away over Hungarian cherry soup in this tightly packed Soho restaurant, with Foot passing gossip and first- hand impressions of developments inside the Labour movement to his Russian contacts."

Note what the above passage establishes: that Lyubimov's work involved meeting both Tory and Labour politicians, that the venues for these meetings were conventional and public, and that the Gay Hussar, indeed a favourite restaurant of the Labour left, was a small, crowded place, not the best setting for the passing on of anything remotely resembling a confidence.

Note, also, that these "left-wing luminaries" are conceived as both "chattering the 1960s away" and also, elsewhere in the article, holding down highly significant posts.

The next paragraph is, in a way, the most striking in the whole account: "That [the chattering] all stopped by 1968, the year of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, when Foot and others were brought down to earth with a bump. Only hardline fellow travellers continued to regard Moscow as a beacon of world peace."

Here Mr Leppard seems to be describing the wrong person altogether, the Wrong Boot, in fact. He is asking us to believe that Mr Foot lived through the Moscow trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact and the invasion of Hungary without seeing anything wrong with Mother Russia, so that he was perfectly happy to "chatter the 1960s away" with the KGB, but that, at the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the scales fell from his eyes.

This may be a description of somebody else - a member of the British Communist Party, for instance. But it is not a description of Michael Foot, who had devoted his life to Labour, and to a particular tradition within the Labour Party that was devoted to the pursuit of socialism by methods other than those practised in the Soviet Union.

The idea that the invasion of Czechoslovakia both turned Mr Foot into a public libertarian and made him unwilling to go on flirting in private with the KGB can only have come from someone who has no idea of the historical Mr Foot.

And Mr Leppard is in a particularly weak position to pursue his theory, because the key witness to the suborning of Mr Foot, Colonel Lyubimov, happens to say that the whole story is rot, that he met Mr Foot only two or three times during his spell in London, and that, at most, he might have given him the odd bottle of vodka.

There seems little reason to doubt Lyubimov's version of events: that the conspiratorial reports back home and the giving of pseudonyms to casual contacts was just part of the cloak-and-dagger culture of the KGB. Reports of this kind were obviously designed to impress the folks back home.

When the editor of the Sunday Times, John Witherow, claimed on The World this Weekend not to believe that Michael Foot was an agent but to be simply concerned that the KGB leaders themselves were under this impression, he was either being disingenuous or he had not read his own paper.

The Sunday Times says that Lyubimov arrived in London in 1961 and "tracked [Mr Foot] down" (another absurd idea - Foot was one of the most celebrated figures on the left; it would be as if Lyubimov had "tracked down" Cleopatra's Needle).

Then, as we have seen, "Lyubimov drew Foot into his net". So, first he tracked him down, then he ensnared him. Indirectly, the KGB channelled money to Tribune through people who could "pose as benefactors".

Either this is what Foot was supposed to be or he was being duped by others. Yet, as the other so-called source for this so-called story, Lieutenant- Colonel Viktor Kubeykin, says when asked why money "would have" been paid to Foot: "There might have been some conferences, some leaflets, promotion of certain arguments, some articles written, or he could have been requested to try to move forward certain ideas. I don't think it would have been blood money."

In other words, the insinuation of the Sunday Times is that a transaction was taking place, even though it has to be expressed in various forms of conditional tense, and even though the sums were not "blood money" - whatever that is supposed to be. Note also that Kubeykin tells Leppard that he was given "deep cover" to infiltrate the Labour movement.

Deep cover! We refer to the Sunday Times's own information; in brief, to learn that "cover" in this case meant that he was Second Secretary to the Soviet Embassy in London. So much for Witness Kubeykin.

The last section of the article collapsed into farce. We learnt that Fred Halliday, a professor at the LSE, was an "unwitting informant" of the KGB because they read his articles and believed them. We are told that Ray Buckton told Kubeykin that Robert Maxwell was not to be trusted over the publication of Brezhnev's memoirs.

Wrong advice, Comrade Buckton. Maxwell was the only creep in publishing who would bring out the book in the way Brezhnev wanted. And look, the wrong advice was passed on to the Central Committee ... and ignored.

We shall no doubt see more attempts to breathe life into Mr Gordievsky'smemoirs. But I should be ashamed to have done what Mr Witherow did, which was to mount a full-scale attack on Mr Foot's credibility, and then pretend that his paper was only showing a proper concern over the past perceptions of the defunct KGB.

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