Now that my one-time colleague Dick Clements has been “exposed” by the Sunday Times as an alleged “agent of influence” for the KGB, it is time that I at last owned up to my own role during the 1970s.
I cannot remember where I first met Boris. I know only that he seemed a fixture at trade union conferences, with his dark suit, his piercing blue eyes and the little hip-flask that made regular seesaw motions between his pocket and his mouth.
He would sit on the press tables and tell everyone he was the correspondent for Tass. Sometimes he said Izvestia. It scarcely mattered. We all knew he was not a journalist. He would still be sitting on the press tables long after every self-respecting reporter in the place had filed his story and gone to the bar. Then he would talk to his Moscow office for hours in hushed tones.
How it happened I shall never know, but we seemed more and more to find ourselves the last people left in the bar. Perhaps – for spies are trained in such things – he realised that I had a fondness for alcoholic refreshment. He himself would stay with me, now alternating slugs from his hip-flask with a half a pint of beer. He called the combination “huf and huf” and told me he had picked up the taste from a communist trade union leader he knew.
I remember when he first asked me for information. It was a defining moment in my life. One night, late even by our standards, he leaned so far forward that the aroma of his huf and huf almost overcame me and said: “Francis. Tell me one thing. Will the general secretary tomorrow make a statement on paragraph 2.9.17a of the executive committee report on the Bridlington claim against branch 3/907 of the Transport and General Workers’ Union?”
I let the moment hang in the air. Then I said: “Yes, Boris. I have reason to believe that he will.”
“Thank you, Francis,” he said, and you could almost touch the relief in his tone. “Thank you,” he said again. He placed a heavy hand on my shoulder, heaved himself off his bar stool and staggered, belching, to bed.
From that moment there was no turning back. We met in the Pindar of Wakefield in Gray’s Inn Road (London), the Bedford Arms in Chenies (Bucks) and other pubs all over England; but mostly we met in the Cheshire Cheese, just off Fleet Street. There I would find Boris with a group of journalists; but always he wanted to be alone with me for a moment.
His questions were always direct. Was it true that Jim Callaghan had a homosexual relationship with the head of the Federal Reserve, thus facilitating Britain’s IMF loan? No, Boris, I was fairly sure that that was not true. Had Denis Healey once been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s? Indeed, yes, I told him: I myself had seen the information in a daily newspaper. Was Tony Benn generally considered to be moving towards the left of the Labour Party? I was able to tell him that this was the almost universal perception of what was occurring.
The last time I betrayed my country’s secrets to Boris was in 1983, the night before a general election. I had been working in Labour Party headquarters, so was privy to inside information. As it happens, the last person I had seen as I left that night was the Labour leader Michael Foot’s adviser, Dick Clements, who, I now realise, must have had his own channel to Boris.
As I walked into the Westminster Arms, just by the Houses of Parliament, the evening paper carried the last opinion poll of the election, showing the Tories on 45 per cent with Labour on 24 per cent. It was almost closing time, and I saw Boris at once on a bar stool. He looked older and more dishevelled, and I realised how heavy a toll on him his double life had taken.
He gave me a glass of beer, sipped his own beer and his hipflask, looked at me through those piercing but now rather wild blue eyes, and said: “Francis. Tovarich. Will Mrs Thatcher win tomorrow?”
My eyes filled with tears.
“Yes, Boris” I told him. “I think she will.”
“And Francis” – now he was holding the lapels of my jacket, as though he feared that otherwise he might fall off his bar stool – “will she do many terrible things?”
I held his eyes, just as I had on that first never-to-be-forgotten day, and after an age I said quietly: “Yes, Boris. She will do many terrible things.”
He clattered off his bar stool and ran wildly to the door, upending tables and chairs as he crashed blindly into them, and leaving a river of other people’s beer in his wake. He slammed the door behind him and I heard the unmistakable sound of a deeply unhappy man being sick in the gutter.
I never saw him again.
The writer, a biographer of Attlee, has been a trade union and Labour Party press officer