"MI6 officers concluded that Michael Foot had been used by the Soviets for disinformation purposes"
Truth about former Labour leader emerges 23 years after he sued Sunday Times for libel
MI6 officers concluded that Michael Foot had been used by the Soviets for disinformation purposes
MI6 believed that Michael Foot had been a paid informant of the Soviet Union and was prepared to warn the Queen of his “KGB history” when he stood to become prime minister, its officers have revealed in a new book.
The British intelligence apparatus concluded that the evidence presented by a Soviet defector about the Labour leader’s links with the KGB was strong enough to warrant the unprecedented constitutional action.
The book, The Spy and the Traitor, presents the first corroboration by MI6 officers of the allegations made by the Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky that Foot had received a series of clandestine payments from the KGB, which classed him as an “agent” and “confidential contact”.
Ben Macintyre on double agent Oleg Gordievsky
They concluded that while Foot had not been a “spy or conscious agent” he had been used for disinformation purposes by the Soviet Union and received in return the equivalent of £37,000 in today’s money.
The book, written by the Times columnist Ben Macintyre and serialised today, further outlines the extent of the Soviet Union’s penetration of the Labour and trade union movement through the Cold War and the willing co-operation and financial gain of many of its leading members.
The trade union leader Jack Jones had been formally listed by the KGB as an “agent”, Gordievsky revealed to MI6 at his debriefing in 1982. Upon moving to London Gordievsky reactivated contact with Jones, who in the 1970s had a standing invitation from Labour’s two prime ministers to join the cabinet. Gordievsky said that while Jones was “delighted to accept lunch, and occasional disbursements of cash” he was by now “absolutely useless” as a contact.
The revelations come 23 years after Foot successfully sued The Sunday Times when it published Gordievsky’s claims that the KGB held an extensive file on the former Labour leader, whom it had named Agent Boot.
Foot, who died in 2010 aged 96, had described the allegations as a “big lie” and said that as far as he knew he had never met or seen a KGB agent in his life. He and his supporters dismissed the allegations as MI5 smears.
However, the new book records that MI6 agents privy to the revelations from Gordievsky in the summer of 1982 had believed his claims and were prepared to warn the Queen, who for decades has held weekly discussions with her prime ministers, in the event that the Labour Party won the next general election.
“Within MI6 there were discussions about the constitutional implications if Michael Foot won the election,” the book states. “It was agreed that should a politician with a KGB history become prime minister of Britain, then the Queen would have to be informed.”
The book also reveals that Sir Robert Armstrong, then the cabinet secretary, was warned about Gordievsky’s revelations by the director-general of MI5. Both concluded that the “information was far too politically incendiary” to be passed to Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister. After Foot’s election as party leader in November 1980 and disquiet in the country at Thatcher’s monetarist policies, Labour went ahead of the Conservatives in the opinion polls. It is widely thought that Britain’s victory in the Falklands war in 1982 was the most significant contributing factor to Thatcher’s landslide election victory the next year.
The book recounts the extraordinary saga of Gordievsky, a double agent who became one of the 20th century’s most influential spies.
The KGB agent began spying for Britain in the 1970s while in Denmark and in 1982 was posted to its London station where, with the help of MI6, he rose to become its head. In the months before his posting he said that he had pored over the files held in Moscow of “individuals in the UK regarded by the KGB as agents, potential agents, or confidential contacts”.
The Agent Boot file amounted to more than 400 pages, he said. On the cover the word “agent” had been crossed out and replaced with “confidential contact”. The Spy and the Traitor outlines that Gordievsky told his MI6 case officers that the Soviet Union’s relationship with Foot had been evolving since the late 1940s, when the future MP was heavily involved with the left-wing magazine Tribune. During the 1960s between ten and 14 payments, amounting to about £37,000 in today’s money, were made to Foot following the first meeting in the offices of Tribune when “KGB officers posing as diplomats slipped £10 into his pocket”. Foot is thought to have been downgraded by the KGB from “agent” to “confidential contact” in 1968 after the Soviet repression of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, which Foot denounced.
When MI6 assessed Gordievsky’s revelations in 1982 a senior officer, now retired, concluded that Foot “had been used only for ‘disinformation purposes’.” Another agent said: “We were worried about the sensitivity of this knowledge and the need to avoid it being used for party political reasons”. MI6, knowing that a general election was certain within the next two years, decided to “bury” the information and hope that Labour lost, the book records.
The Times approached a former Soviet intelligence source to ask whether Jeremy Corbyn, who earlier this year denied links with Communist spies, had been a subject of interest. The source said that the Labour leader had not been someone of sufficient consequence to have been considered a potential recruitment target.