Britain admits that it was spying on Russians with "fake rock"

Jonathan Powell reveals that the 2006 allegations were true.

It could have been straight out of a Cold War spy thriller: the claim that British agents had hidden a transmitter inside a fake rock left on a Moscow Street.

Now, Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair, has admitted that the 2006 allegations were true. Appearing in a BBC documentary series, Putin, Russia and the West, he said:

The spy rock was embarrassing. They had us bang to rights. Clearly they had known about it for some time and had been saving it up for a political purpose.

The rock, just 30cm wide, grew to Gibraltar-sized proportions when it sparked a diplomatic row after Russian TV broadcast the story six years ago.

In scenes with clear echoes of Ian Fleming and John le Carré, the report included a video of a man slowing his pace and looking down at the rock (with some seriously shifty eyes), before walking quickly away. Other videos included a man kicking the rock, and a different man walking past and picking it up. The broadcast showed that the rock was hollowed out and filled with circuitry, a device of such crude simplicity that it seemed unrealistic.

The Russian security service, the FSB, alleged that Britain was making secret payments to pro-democracy and human rights groups in Russia. Soon after the incident, there was a clampdown on foreign funding for these groups and many went under.

Tony Blair downplayed the affair at the time, playing on its almost farcical nature by attempting to laugh it off. "I think the less said about that, the better," he told journalists, smiling.

Yet he was careful not to deny it outright. At a news conference, he said:

Look I only saw myself on Teletext this morning, the business about Russia. I'm afraid you're going to get the old stock-in-trade, of never commenting on security matters. Except when we want to, obviously.

Although the UK was cagey on the rock itself, the Foreign Office was unequivocal in its denial of any improper conduct with NGOs in Russia, saying that all their contributions were entirely above board. Of course, there are plenty of other reasons Britain might want to spy on Russia: it's nuclear and military intentions, its dealings with Iran and Iraq, and its geopolitical use of gas resources.

Shortly before "rock-gate", MI6 launched a new recruitment website, saying: "Whether you have the skills to design hi-tech gadgets or deploy them in a hostile environment, SIS may have the career for you". One wonders whether the recruitment drive has resulted in any improvements in technology.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.