UK: The Tories and Lord Palmerston’s ghost

Nearly 170 years ago, Britain was at war with Russia and Karl Marx was convinced that the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was colluding secretly with the enemy.

During his research in the British Museum Marx examined hundreds of British diplomatic documents. His conclusion, according to his biographer Boris Nicolaevsky, was that the documents “revealed a secret connivance between the cabinets in London and St Petersburg dating from the time of Peter the Great.” In other words, for more than a century.

Marx went even further than this. Palmerston, he told Friedrich Engels in a letter, had “for several decades... been in the pay of Russia.”

I am reminded of Marx’s views on Palmerston in the wake of the recent revelations about the “Conservative Friends of Russia.”

This week, it was revealed that a former BBC journalist and Tory party activist named Sergei Cristo has lodged a formal complaint alleging that MI5 refused to investigate an attempt by a Russian spy to infiltrate the highest levels of the Conservative Party.

The spy is Sergey Nalobin and the story goes back to 2010. At that time, Cristo claims he was approached by Nalobin, then the political first secretary at the Russian Embassy, in a meeting at the Carlton Club. That’s a private club in St James, London, where the Conservative Party was founded in 1832. Lord Palmerston may well have dined there with colleagues.

Nalobin had learned that Cristo had connections to the treasurers’ department of his party and he made a suggestion to the Tory politician. Maybe he could make introductions to allow Russian businesses to donate to the Tories.

Cristo understood that this could not be right (or legal) and reported the approach to the police, who did nothing. He shared it with a Guardian journalist, who went public with the story. As a result of the subsequent scandal, Conservative Friends of Russia... changed its name. It became the Westminster Russia Forum. Alas, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago, it had to dissolve completely — for now.

Nalobin’s connection to the Russian intelligence services is now beyond doubt. His father is a former KGB general and according to Marina Litvinenko, the general was her husband Alexander’s boss in the 1990s when he was an FSB agent.

As Tory blogger Paul Staines described Nalobin in The Spectator: “His Facebook photos showed him at a fancy dress party dressed in a Russian military uniform with ‘KGB’ written on his hat — handgun in one hand.” Nalobin’s “sense of humour” was also evident on Twitter where he described himself as a “brutal agent of the Putin dictatorship”. Which, it turns out, he apparently was.

The Home Office eventually withdrew his permission to remain in the UK. And last year, the Estonians did the same.

The Russian intelligence services had an ongoing operation to cosy up to the Tories. They were keen for Putin’s United Russia party and the Tories to work closely together as sister parties. And they wanted to make certain that the Tories’ criticism of the Russian regime were muted. They threw lavish parties to which Tory politicians were invited, Boris Johnson being one of them.

I doubt we’ve seen the last of collaboration between the Tories and Putin’s Russia. Boris Johnson and others were happy to be wined and dined by the likes of Sergey Nalobin at a time when the Russian state was killing off its opponents on the streets of London. Nalobin had access to top Tory politicians even when Putin’s forces invaded Georgia. Growing human rights violations in Russia itself had no effect on those Tories who were accepting free travel to visit Moscow.

Some of Marx’s biographers thought that he may have exaggerated a bit in his view of Palmerston. And maybe it would be too much today to speak of “collusion” between senior figures in the Tory party with the Russian state.

Still, I think that Labour MP Ben Bradshaw may be on to something when he speaks about the “Conservative party’s Russia problem,” which he called an ongoing threat to Britain’s national security. It is also a moral disgrace.