Politics 26 October 2018 | 13:19

Sir Philip Green is not the first person to be exposed by parliamentary privilege

26 October 2018 13:19

The naming of Sir Philip Green reminded me instantly of a very different use of the same parliamentary privilege that enabled Lord Hain to identify the disgraced businessman at the heart of the Daily Telegraph’s #MeToo story.

In 1955, the Labour MP, Colonel Marcus Lipton, claimed in the Commons that Kim Philby was the ‘third man’ in the Cambridge spy ring (known already to include Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, both of whom had fled to the Soviet Union). As a former first secretary at the British Embassy in Washington and a close associate of the guilty duo, Philby was suspected by many of espionage.

Admitting to an ‘imprudent friendship’ with Burgess, he nonetheless vociferously denied any such treasonous conduct. In the circumstances – and in an era when the Establishment took its members at their word – the Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan felt obliged to declare that there was ‘no reason to conclude that Mr Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of this country’.

This was not, of course, the case: his treachery had blown the cover of many agents, led to the loss of many lives and given the KGB access to British intelligence of the most sensitive sort for many years. It was Philby who told his handlers that the high-flying British diplomat, David Cornwell, was, in fact, an MI6 official: Cornwell became better-known in due course as the author, John Le Carre, who, quite understandably, refused to meet Philby when he went to Moscow in 1988.

In different circumstances, the third man might easily have become C – the chief of SIS – giving the KGB total access to all of Nato’s most closely-guarded secrets. Instead, the net tightened and Philby fled to the USSR in 1963. Lipton, vindicated at last, admitted that ‘I am feeling rather smugly satisfied’ – though not, perhaps, as satisfied as Philby.

To understand the mask that powerful men can wear – and their arrogance – watch this grainy footage from 1955 of a double-agent who has yet again outfoxed those hunting him. It is an object lesson in the potency of deception – an art that, as the #MeToo movement has shown, is by no means confined to the world of espionage.