THE AGENT BOOT FILE
£10 notes slipped into his pocket, lunches in the Gay Hussar with shady Russians, a 450-page folder with the codename ‘Boot’. Michael Foot went to his grave protesting his innocence, but is this the evidence that exposes him as a liar – or worse?
ON THE afternoon of Friday, July 7, 1995, the former leader of the Labour Party, Michael Foot, emerged from the High Court in London with a broad smile on his face. A few minutes before, he had just learned that he had won a landmark libel case against The Sunday Times, which had accused him of having been an agent for the KGB – operating under the codename of ‘Boot’.
Awarded ‘substantial’ damages as well as his legal costs – which together amounted to the equivalent of £250,000 today – Foot was adamant the story was hogwash.
‘What The Sunday Times said was so serious – that I was a spy who had served one of the most wicked organisations that has existed this century – I thought it had to be wiped clear,’ Foot said, before heading off to celebrate at his favourite restaurant, the Gay Hussar, the Hungarian restaurant in Soho where it was said that Foot had met his KGB handlers.
Ever since then, the world has believed that Foot was innocent, with many predictable voices on the left dismissing the accusations as a ‘smear’ by the ‘Right-wing press’.
However, yesterday it sensationally emerged that the Secret Intelligence Service – better known as MI6 – certainly believed that the Labour leader was a Soviet source, and was even prepared to tell the Queen if Foot became Prime Minister.
Had Margaret Thatcher lost the Falklands War in 1982, then that unthinkable situation might well have happened – a Soviet agent rising to the highest office in the land, with access to the deepest state secrets.
The revelation has been made in a forthcoming book called The Spy And The Traitor by Ben Macintyre, in which it also emerges that Foot received today’s equivalent of nearly £40,000 for the information that he supplied the Soviet Union.
In short, the suggestion is that back in 1995, Michael Foot was lying. He had indeed served the KGB, and he took that terrible secret to his grave in 2010.
So how on earth was Foot recruited as ‘Agent Boot’? How long did he serve the KGB? What did he tell them? And how, in the murky world of espionage, can we be sure that the latest allegations are true?
HOW RUSSIANS MADE CONTACT
TO GET to the bottom of this murky tale of high politics and low treachery, we need to step into the London of the 1960s, and enter into a grey and smoke-filled world more akin to the pages of a John le Carré novel than the colourful vibrancy of the swinging capital.
In particular, we need to enter the offices of Tribune, a socialist magazine for which Michael Foot had been editor throughout much of the 1950s. After being elected as MP for Blaenau Gwent in 1960, Foot stepped down as editor, but continued to write for the magazine and spent much time there. One day in the early 1960s – and we are not sure precisely when – some Russians describing themselves as ‘diplomats’ met with Foot at the magazine’s offices. The men chatted easily, and the visitors said that they were appreciative of Tribune’s pro-Russian stance. Foot, meanwhile, moaned that the magazine was permanently short of cash. The Russians got the hint, and at the end of the meeting, slipped a £10 note into Foot’s jacket pocket. Worth some £250 today, this would be the first of some ten to 14 donations made to Foot, which would total the equivalent of £37,000 in 2018.
Although it is unclear exactly what Foot did with the money, it is supposed that he gave much of it to the magazine. The Russians were not of course diplomats, but they were members of the KGB, the notorious and brutal Soviet intelligence service. In fact, the organisation had had its eye on Foot since the 1940s, recognising him as a ‘progressive’ – in other words, sympathetic to the Soviet regime and its mass-murdering dictator, Josef Stalin.
If Foot did not know that the men were members of the KGB, then at the very best, he was being absurdly naive. But they truly were, because back in Moscow, a file had been opened deep in the heart of the headquarters of the KGB – the dreaded Lubyanka.
THE DAMNING DOSSIER
THE first page of that file could not be more damning. It consisted of a short, typed note.
‘I, senior operational officer Major Petrov, Ivan Alexeyevich,
herewith open a file on the agent Michael Foot, citizen of the UK, giving him the pseudonym Boot.’
The KGB officer clearly liked a play on words with his choice of codename, but what is remarkable is the use of the word ‘agent’, which leaves little room for doubt as to the nature of the relationship between the Soviet Union and a British parliamentarian who would come chillingly close to becoming Prime Minister. Throughout the 1960s, Foot met with his KGB contacts about once a month, often for lunch at the Gay Hussar.
According to the file, these meetings were arranged three days in advance, with an agenda also agreed. What made them more extraordinary is that these lunches were not clandestine, and were far removed from secret encounters on park benches in obscure parks.
Perhaps brazenly hiding in plain sight was the best option. Foot was, after all, a high-profile MP, and he could always claim that he was quite legitimately dining with Russian diplomats. After all, like Jeremy Corbyn, Foot made no secret of his Leftism or his affection for countries that most ordinary citizens would have regarded as being beyond the pale.
What exactly did Foot tell his KGB contacts? As he had no access to state secrets, it would be wrong to claim that Foot was a traitor in the mould of a Philby, Burgess or Maclean. However, the Russians would have certainly valued whatever Foot could have told them about thinking in the Labour Party and the Left in general and also, of course, any parliamentary gossip.
Whatever it was Foot told them, it was clearly considered valuable enough by the KGB to keep paying him, and his file to run to some two folders containing around 450 pages. However, by the end of the 1960s, it appears that the relationship started to peter out, largely because – to his credit – Foot was highly critical of the brutal Russian repression of the 1968 Prague Spring. The meetings were to stop taking place by the time that Foot became Labour leader in November 1980.
While Foot started his sparring with Margaret Thatcher across the despatch boxes, he doubtless hoped that his dirty little secret would never see the light of day.
What he never reckoned upon was that there was a traitor working in the depths of the KGB, a man who would soon expose Foot’s secret to British intelligence.
KGB OFFICER AND A GAY HONEYTRAP
IN JANUARY 1966, at around the same time that Michael Foot was regularly meeting his Russian contacts, one of their fellow KGB officers was arriving in Copenhagen to take up his top secret role running Soviet spies in Denmark.
The officer’s name was Oleg Gordievsky, a 27-year-old highflyer who was accompanied by his wife Yelena.
Almost as soon as he had arrived, Gordievsky was struck by the liberalism and the sense of plenty in the West.
He was particularly fascinated by the Danes’ sexual tolerance, and at one point he even went to a sex shop and bought some gay pornographic magazines to show to his wife.
What Gordievsky did not know – but probably guessed – was that he was being monitored by Danish intelligence, who shared with their allies, such as the British, the fact that Gordievsky might be secretly gay.
Of course, a closeted homosexual intelligence officer is particularly vulnerable to blackmail, and the Danes tried to ensnare the Russian with a gay honeytrap. The plan failed as Gordievsky was actually heterosexual.
However, Gordievsky was disenchanted with the Soviet system.
His feelings were picked up on by MI6, when a defector informed them that Gordievsky had shown ‘clear signs of political disillusionment’.
The British decided to try to recruit him, and the job fell to an MI6 officer called Richard Bromhead, who approached Gordievsky when he was playing his morning game of badminton with a female member of the Young Danish Communists.
Bromhead suggested a lunch, and Gordievsky agreed so readily that the MI6 officer was suspi-
cious. Those suspicions proved unfounded, because Gordievsky would become what Ben Macintyre calls ‘Britain’s greatest spy’, and for good reason.
THE SPY WHO SAVED THE WORLD
THE British couldn’t believe their luck, because in 1982, Gordievsky was posted to the Russian Embassy in London, where he would soon be made the ‘resident’ – the head of the KGB in Britain.
This was a huge coup for MI6, as Gordievsky clearly would know the identities of those the Soviets had recruited.
Even more crucially, Gordievsky was able to provide the British and their intelligence partners – the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia – deep insights into Soviet thinking during a very critical period of the Cold War.
Thanks to Gordievsky, what became clear was that the Soviets, who were conducting a huge intelligence gathering exercise called Operation Ryan, were desperate to prove that the West was about to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on Russia.
Things really did come close to Armageddon when Nato carried out a huge military exercise in 1983 called Able Archer, which the paranoid Soviets strongly suspected was a cover for an actual attack.
The exercise could not have come at a worse time, because as Macintyre observes, ‘Nato began to simulate a realistic nuclear assault at the very moment the KGB was attempting to detect one.’
It was partly thanks to Gordievsky warning the British and the Americans of the Soviet thinking that a Third World War was averted. One top secret CIA document even states that the KGB officer’s reports were an ‘epiphany’ for a hawkish Ronald Reagan and were a ‘timely warning to Washington via MI6 [that] kept things from going too far’.
But as well as saving the world, Gordievsky had also seen and read a lot of files which were of immense interest to the British.
And one of those files was labelled with one simple word: ‘Boot’.
It was, of course, the file on Michael Foot, and what Gordievsky told his MI6 handlers astonished them.
Although a senior MI6 officer thought that Foot ‘had been used only for “disinformation purposes”,’ there was no doubt that revelation was immensely politically sensitive, and could destroy Foot’s career.
MI6 decided to keep the information within a very tight circle.
It informed MI5, which in turn passed on the revelation to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Armstrong. The senior civil servant thought that information was just too ‘incendiary’, and he is said by Macintyre to have quietly pocketed the note, hoping that the problem would go away if and when Foot lost the next General Election.
However, if Foot was to win, then it was agreed that the Queen – who meets with the Prime Minister once a week – would have to be informed that Foot was a former Soviet agent.
The mind boggles at how Her Majesty would have reacted.
As it turned out, partly thanks to the victory in the Falklands, Margaret Thatcher won the 1983 Election with a landslide majority of 144.
A couple of years later, Gordievsky defected to Britain, where he still lives quietly with his family.
Michael Foot had been buried, and so too had his secret – until now.
CONTACT: Michael Foot first met the Russian ‘diplomats’ at the offices of the Left-wing magazine Tribune
Russian agent Oleg Gordievsky told MI6 of the ‘Agent Boot’ file INTRIGUE: Foot met his KGB contacts once a month at the Gay Hussar restaurant in Soho BRAZEN: