The sixth man

Was Paddy Costello a key member of the most notorious Soviet spy network of the 1950s - or was he fr

Paddy Costello never knew what brought his brilliant career to a sudden end in 1954. He was the rising star of New Zealand's diplomatic service, its most effective operator, and easily its best linguist, being fluent in nine or ten languages, including Russian and French. He was the first diplomat to see and understand the horrors of Auschwitz. He told the west that the Soviet Union had the atom bomb before it was announced, and was not believed. No charges were ever laid, but MI5 told his bosses they believed Paddy to be a Soviet spy. Britain's top spy writers now describe him as one of the most dangerous and effective of Anthony Blunt's Cambridge recruits, who made Peter and Helen Kroger's spying activities possible.

After Paddy's death, his son Mick Costello was a mover and shaker in trade union and left-wing circles in the 1970s and 1980s. He was certainly the best-known communist in Britain, probably the cleverest, and easily the party's best linguist. "He speaks fluent Russian," people used to say meaningfully. "He was brought up in Moscow." The Sun called him "the most dangerous man in Britain". The word on Fleet Street was that Mick was a Soviet spy.

It seemed somehow to confirm Mick's treachery that he was thought to be following in a family tradition. In 1981, Paddy was named as a spy by a writer close to MI5, Chapman Pincher, in Their Trade is Treachery, and again by MI5's official historian Professor Christopher Andrew in The Mitrokhin Archive. Andrew said he was "one of the KGB's top ten". But a new book, The Sixth Man, published this month in Costello's native New Zealand (but not in Britain), convincingly argues that Paddy was framed. He was exactly what he appeared to be, and nothing else. As for Mick, "I don't know anything about spying," he told me last month.

He once consulted a top QC about whether to sue a newspaper for saying he had recruited KGB agents in Britain. "I was told that the fact that it's untrue won't help. A jury would say that the Communist Party has relations with the Soviet Union, so to suggest that a CP member is linked with the KGB is not damaging to your reputation." I've always thought that being industrial editor of the Morning Star and then industrial organiser for the Communist Party does not sound like good cover for a KGB spy.

On the other hand, Mick, now 71, is tall, thin and argumentative, with a mind that seems to approach every question elliptically, a voice that sounds as though he gargles with gravel, and a strong head for drink. Fleet Street's finest used to mention this last as part of his espionage equipment: as they became garrulous, he grew silent, a thin smile just visible behind his habitual small cigar. The weakness of this theory is that Mick's companions seldom had any secrets worth hearing.

Paddy was rather similar, judging by The Sixth Man, a sensitive and enthralling biography by a distinguished New Zealand novelist. In 1932 the young Paddy came to Britain to take up a schol arship at Trinity College, Cambridge, where his contemporaries included Blunt, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and the communist theoretician and recruiting sergeant James Klugmann. Half a century later, after Paddy's death, the former MI5 agent Peter Wright, author of Spycatcher, told Chapman Pincher that he recalled Blunt naming Paddy as one of his recruits. Blunt's confession named several people, some of whom were innocent. But Paddy was not one of them. Wright was a fantasist with a grudge, and he had been in MI5 when it engineered Paddy's dismissal from the New Zealand diplomatic service.

Philby and the others never joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, for obvious reasons. But Paddy joined it in 1935, partly under the influence of Bella Lerner, an East End girl of Jewish Ukrainian extraction, whom he met and married that year. An anonymous New Zealand security service briefing later called Paddy "a dedicated and ruthless communist, determined to outdo his Ukrainian Jewish wife in her intellectual toughness as a communist". Mick says: "This is rubbish. Ukrainian and Jewish had nothing to do with it - my mother's politics came from London's East End, where she was brought up." Paddy left within two years, though not before couriering money from the British CP to its Indian counterpart, but Bella remained a communist all her life.

Black mark

In May 1940 he was teaching ancient history at the University College of the South-West of England, now Exeter University. One of his students, Hubert Fyrth, appeared at the Old Bailey charged with passing on information contrary to the Official Secrets Act. With invasion of Britain imminent, it sounded dreadful. Actually, it was trivial. The French government had banned circulation of the Daily Worker, the communist newspaper, among British troops. Fyrth had received the decree from his brother, a naval officer, and passed it to the Daily Worker.

The distressed student went to Costello for advice, and Costello tried to be comforting. That was all; but it was enough to get Costello fired, and another black mark appeared against his name in the security files.

After four years of war service, distinguished by bravery, imagination and reckless binge drinking, he was offered a remarkable posting for a man with no diplomatic experience: third secretary with the New Zealand legation in Moscow. "I'm afraid I'm a bit left-wing, sir," he said to Prime Minister Peter Fraser. "That's all right," said Fraser. "We can do with one or two communists in Moscow."

He was an instant star on the diplomatic circuit. Travel was restricted, but Costello travelled pretty well anywhere he pleased. Looking back, sleepy Anglo-Saxon diplomats started to think he must have special access, but the truth was that his charm, deviousness and fluent Russian were generally enough to overcome bureaucratic obstacles. McNeish says he was not really a diplomat but "an inspired and intensely curious sport". He was also instinctively cosmopolitan, and the British Establishment distrusts such people. It is no accident that in the 1930s, the word "cosmopolitan" became code for "Jew" in upper-class anti-Semitic circles.

British security folk were furiously whispering in the ears of their New Zealand counterparts. Had he not once been a communist? Was his wife not a communist? And what about the Fyrth affair, in which "there is no proof that Costello was implicated in the disclosure of military information, but . . ." That "but" is the insinuating weapon of security files, silent and deadly.

Perhaps Moscow sealed his son's fate. Paddy, characteristically, did not want to send Mick to the international school, as most diplomats did, but to an ordinary school in Moscow where he would learn about the country and become fluent in its language. "I was there from the ages of nine to 14 - these are very important years," says Mick. "There was a great aura of triumph over the fascists."

But 1954 found Costello in what turned out to be his last diplomatic posting, Paris. The Paris legation, having seen the correct supporting documents, issued New Zealand passports for a New Zealander and his Canadian wife. The documents were forged, however, and the couple - Peter and Helen Kroger - used them to enter Britain, where they became the nerve centre of the Portland spy ring.

Today's spy writers suggest this was Paddy's contribution to the Krogers' activities. In fact, the legation seems to have followed the proper procedures. But what McNeish unearths is startling. Paddy didn't even issue the passports. It was done, in his absence, by a colleague.

It did not matter. The British had their knife in him, and that year they managed, after years of private insinuations, to persuade a new Conservative government in New Zealand to fire him. He never knew why.

Paddy was lucky. After a few months of un employment, his academic record won him an unexpected job as professor of Russian at Manchester University.

There, in 1956, his son Mick, a student at the university and president of its student union (he beat Anna Ford to the job) joined the Communist Party. That was the year everyone else was leaving it because of Hungary, and it is somehow typical of the Costellos, who clearly felt thoroughly uncomfortable if ever, by some mischance, they found themselves swimming with the current. Equally typically, after 20 years outside it since the break-up of Britain's Communist Party, Mick joined its intellectual successor, the Communist Party of Britain, this year.

"In 1956, Paddy didn't try to enforce his views on me, but he was very critical of the CP," says Mick. "I told him it was too late for him to criticise policies of which he had been a part and I had not. These were difficult conversations."

Paddy died in 1964. The Costellos, père et fils, would have been useless spies. But they were perfect suspects: clever and unable to disguise it, multilingual, unconventional and outsiders - the sort of person the public school club that was MI5 liked to fix on. MI5 rather despised spies, for a typically elliptical reason. Blunt and his recruits, says Mick, "found a way of engaging in their politics without changing the lifestyle they liked. They didn't have what it takes to stand outside a railway station, come rain or shine, selling the Daily Worker."

"The Sixth Man: the Extraordinary Life of Paddy Costello" by James McNeish is published by Vintage New Zealand (NZ$35)

Spies by numbers

First man Donald Maclean – British diplomat who gave Soviets information about atomic weapons

Second man Guy Burgess – transmitted secret documents to the Soviets while working for the BBC and Foreign Office

Third man Kim Philby – head of Soviet counter-espionage at MI6 while working as a Soviet spy

Fourth man Anthony Blunt – MI5 agent who passed intelligence from decrypted Enigma messages to the Soviets

Fifth man James Klugmann – close friend of Burgess, Maclean and Blunt, he was widely suspected

Research by Alyssa McDonald

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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