The ‘Leninist’ accused of sharing secrets over fine wines, fillet steak – and shows at the Pussy Club
- On October 21, 1966, two men were in Maison Prunier in St James’s, London
- One was Geoffrey Robinson, an unknown 28-year-old Labour Party apparatchik
- The other was Czech spymaster Karel Pravec, who was eager to recruit him
Famed for its caviar and oysters, it was the society haunt where Edward VIII wooed Mrs Simpson. But on October 21, 1966, according to intelligence files seen by The Mail on Sunday, the first act in an altogether different courtship was unfolding inside Maison Prunier in St James’s, Central London.
That night, two men, anxious not be overheard, were in the Art Deco dining room discussing politics in muted tones over a lavish seafood meal.
One was Geoffrey Robinson, then an ambitious but unknown 28-year-old Labour Party apparatchik. The other was Czech spymaster Karel Pravec, who was eager to recruit him.
One was Geoffrey Robinson, then an ambitious but unknown 28-year-old Labour Party apparatchik
Guided to their table a few minutes earlier, they might well have passed a Cabinet Minister or two, landed aristocrats down from the shires, captains of industry, or possibly stars of stage and screen. Once a favourite of Winston Churchill, few restaurants were as celebrated as Maison Prunier.
Given the two men’s political beliefs, it certainly made for an incongruous backdrop to their discussions. According to the files, both Russian-speaking Robinson and Pravec, 35, claimed to be Leninists, yet their tastes were anything but proletarian.
They became acquainted two weeks earlier at the Labour Party conference in Brighton and their dinner was the first of 51 assignations. They always ate and drank in style.
And as the cultivation of Robinson intensified, so too did the two men’s friendship. Before his wedding in 1967, the files say that Robinson even suggested they go on a ‘wild’ stag weekend in Paris ‘from where he would go straight to the altar’.
Mostly their playground was the Establishment heartland of St James’s. The irony of grooming an aspiring British politician under the noses of the elite must have tickled Pravec.
For his part, Robinson – who told his handler he broke off contact with his factory-owning father partly because he didn’t want to be labelled a capitalist – is portrayed in the previously secret reports as a man who relished both the high life and Pravec’s largesse.
Their favoured haunts amounted to a Who’s Who of late 1960s fine dining. They included Overton’s – once popular with 007 author Ian Fleming, who said its pate maison was the ‘best in town’ – and San Frediano in Chelsea, whose regulars included Princess Margaret.
Quaglino’s in St James’s was another favourite, as was Veeraswamy on Regent Street, the oldest Indian restaurant in the country, and the Paramount Grill, off Leicester Square, which claimed to serve the best steak in the world.
Once a favourite of Winston Churchill, few restaurants were as celebrated as Maison Prunier
This was the apogee of Swinging London: the Beatles were recording Sgt Pepper’s, the beau monde thronged the catwalks of Carnaby Street and the Kings Road, and, thanks to fashion designer Mary Quant, miniskirt hemlines had never been shorter.
But while neither Robinson nor Pravec could be called groovy, they were determined to have fun.
They visited nightclubs, among them The Georgian Pussy Club, staggering distance from Quaglino’s – it featured ‘gorgeous hostesses’ who waited on tables dressed in cat outfits comprising leotards and knee-high boots.
Another venue was the Pigalle nightclub in Piccadilly Circus, which was often frequented by the Kray twins and known for its racy cabaret shows.
And sometimes they ventured into Soho to watch the ‘fabulous floorshow’ at Tolaini’s Latin Quarter nightclub in Wardour Street.
According to the files, Robinson handed over confidential documents on numerous occasions. Once, during a restaurant meeting, he wrote down instructions from his handler on a napkin.
Occasionally, the two men played squash at Dolphin Square, the giant ten-storey block of flats looking out over the River Thames at Pimlico, which has long been home to MPs, spies and other notables.
If they needed to request an urgent rendezvous, Robinson’s handler telephoned his home using the cover of arranging a squash match.
On that first night at Prunier, though, beyond the political tenor of their conversation, what the two men discussed is not recorded in the files, only that Karko – Robinson’s Czech codename – ‘provided three items of information’.
Famed for its caviar and oysters, Maison Prunier in St James’s, Central London, was the society haunt where Edward VIII wooed Mrs Simpson
Their meeting began at 7pm and ended at 11.40pm.
If their rendezvous had been the following evening, October 22, Robinson might well have been markedly more nervous.
That day George Blake, the Soviet double agent, escaped over the wall of Wormwood Scrubs and fled to Moscow.
As it was, the first move in a carefully calibrated operation to try to ensnare Robinson, later a Minister under Tony Blair, was a success – at least that’s how it seemed to the StB, the Czech intelligence service.
Robinson, according to the files, was ‘impressed’ by his new friend – ostensibly first secretary at the Czech Embassy – and saw him ‘as an interesting partner from his personal point of view’.
At the time, Robinson worked in the international section of Labour’s research department, apparently affording him access to sensitive material.
A Czech interior ministry memorandum would later state that: ‘[Robinson] regularly provides our unit with information of a political nature, as well as classified materials pertaining to his line of work.’
This appeared true of another meeting three days before Christmas 1966 at the Golden Carp, an upmarket fish restaurant in Mayfair. It was here, the files say, that Robinson claimed to have access to coded communications from British missions abroad.
At first he was reluctant to reveal them, though it is later claimed that he changed his mind.
The two men also discussed the European Economic Community. ‘Karko announced that his arguments [in favour of joining] were backed up by a speech’ made by George Thomson, a Minister in Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Cabinet, given to the Western European Union, an international organisation and military alliance.
The files, which use the codename Comrade Pelnar for Pravec, state: ‘After the meeting, Comrade Pelnar reminded Karko that he had promised to show him Thomson’s speech.
‘At first Karko hesitated, but then (after he had been given a gallon jar of whisky as a Christmas gift) he took Comrade Pelnar to his car and allowed him to read the speech… marked “confidential”.’
It was at this meeting that the Czechs first noted what they called Robinson’s ‘tendency to boast’.
They visited nightclubs, among them The Georgian Pussy Club, staggering distance from Quaglino’s – it featured ‘gorgeous hostesses’ who waited on tables dressed in cat outfits comprising leotards and knee-high boots
Explaining why he had to cancel a rendezvous earlier that month, he said he had been delayed in Paris because the French Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, invited him to dinner. ‘The explanation he gave was that the French PM wanted to talk to him on an unofficial basis about various views on the British joining the EEC,’ said one report.
As they finished their meal, the files say that Robinson expressed concern that his handler was lavishing too much money on him.
‘He was delighted to hear that Comrade Pelnar had a monthly allowance and it made no difference to him whether he spent it with someone all at once or bit by bit.’
At this time, newspapers were full of stories about Cold War traitors and Robinson, according to the files, was prone to jitters. In the spring of 1967, he met his handler in the Georgian nightclub but for once was unable to enjoy the entertainment. He became nervous about the presence of a man sitting at the next table. The files report that he was probably a musician since he was making notes on sheet music, but Robinson was ‘uneasy’ and, believing they could be overheard, insisted on moving elsewhere.
‘You can’t talk freely here,’ he is said to have told his handler.
The files claim that the two men were never followed – the Czechs always carried out counter-surveillance measures.
Yet in July that year, returning from a meeting with Robinson, Pravec ‘was dazzled close to his front door’ by a ‘spotlight fitted on to an unknown vehicle’.
And once inside his London flat, where he lived alone, the spy noticed that the light was on in his bedroom, though it was off when he left for work in the morning.
There had been another unsettling episode some months earlier. Over dinner at Veeraswamy, Robinson noticed a Labour MP, whom he knew well, sitting at the next table with his lover. ‘As he [the MP] clearly felt uncomfortable about being spotted by Karko he left… after a short while.’
There was interest in Robinson from other foreign agents, among them a Russian identified in the files as Mogilevcik.
In one report, Pravec writes: ‘When Mogilevcik finally reached Karko on the phone at work, Karko accepted his lunch invitation in order to prevent further unwelcome phone calls.
According to the files, Robinson handed over confidential documents on numerous occasions. Once, during a restaurant meeting, he wrote down instructions from his handler on a napkin
‘Mogilevcik asked Karko what restaurant he prefers and Karko unfortunately mentioned Paramount, a restaurant that I go to for short lunches when Karko does not have much time and has to go to eat somewhere near his office.
‘Karko accepted my criticism that it was not a very smart thing to do… I think it would be correct to warn Soviet advisers that Karko is being recruited and that the approach of their staff is damaging [and] gravely irresponsible.’
According to the files, Robinson appeared to have had serious qualms about his meetings with Pravec, initially at least.
One report from November 1967 notes that ‘he is most likely aware that he is walking on the edge of a risky adventure that can jeopardise his future career. In order to maintain balance, he appears to have created a notional red line that he strives not to cross.’
But the files suggest he later was in a more useful position to help, although he was far from being in the pay of Communist Czechoslovakia. ‘He made it clear in several interviews that he knew he was involved in espionage and that [Pravec] might “send him to prison any time”. He restricted his co-operation by refusing to share information that might lead to harm to his country in the case of war.’
On one occasion he met his handler at The Red Lion pub in St James’s, tucked away in Crown Passage, a 17th Century alleyway, and perfect for secret assignations. After ‘handing over materials’, the files claim Robinson left to attend a meeting in Parliament before reconvening with Pravec an hour and a half later at a restaurant.
Another venue was the Pigalle nightclub in Piccadilly Circus, which was often frequented by the Kray twins and known for its racy cabaret shows
In early 1968, Robinson was offered an executive job with the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, set up by Harold Wilson to shake up British industry. Pravec tried to dissuade him from taking it and offered to make up the difference in salary. Robinson declined.
A report from that month says: ‘He [Pravec] indicated that the help from foreign states to prospective politicians is common and that there are people in the British Cabinet who have moved up in their posts only thanks to help from abroad. Karko reacted that he knew something about these cases.’ Robinson ‘made clear that money is not the main thing for him and he has the bonds from his father’s company but that he doesn’t use them because he wants to stay faithful to his political principles and that he wants… a political career.’
The report adds that Robinson believes Pravec has ‘given him a lot’ by sharing ‘his life experience’.
Still, though, the contact continued. From around the same time, another report outlined Robinson’s position: ‘He doesn’t get the codes on his desk as he stated before but he reads them during various contacts at FO!! [Foreign Office] Concerning a confidential material, he has the possibility to make a photocopy or to borrow the material and copy it at his workplace. But he cannot make the photocopy with the secret materials and… take them out of the building.’
What would have taken Robinson to the next level – full recruitment as a spy – was to have taken place during the World Ski Championships in February 1970 in Vysoké Tatry, Czechoslovakia.
‘He was very excited about his planned stay and was fully prepared for a further specification of his existing collaboration,’ claim the files. But they go on to say this never happened because ‘the connection with Karko’ was lost.
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