Boris Johnson is facing embarrassing questions over his claims that Russia had produced the Salisbury nerve agent after it emerged that the Foreign Office had deleted a tweet blaming Moscow for the attack.
With the foreign secretary already under pressure over his remarks two weeks ago that a Porton Down scientist had been “absolutely categorical” that the novichok had originated in the country, Jeremy Corbyn accused Johnson of “completely exceeding the information he had been given” after the emergence of the deleted tweet.
The deletion, immediately seized on by the Russian embassy, has deepened the government’s difficulties after British scientists at the UK’s defence research laboratory announced on Tuesday that they had not established that the nerve agent used to poison Sergei and Yulia Skripal had been made in Russia.
After Porton Down said it had “not identified the precise source” of the poison, the Foreign Office issued a swift rebuttal saying the prime minister had always been clear that the assessment was “only one part” of the intelligence picture.
The announcement prompted claims from the Kremlin that Britain was lying about the origins of the novichok and demanded an apology from Theresa May.
However, it emerged on Wednesday that the Foreign Office had earlier deleted a tweet claiming the British scientists had concluded that the nerve agent was “produced in Russia”.
In an awkward development for the Foreign Office, the Russian embassy’s Twitter feed pointed out that the 20 March tweet on a presentation by Britain’s ambassador to Moscow on the Salisbury attack had disappeared.
Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy)
Why would @foreignoffice delete this tweet from 22 March? pic.twitter.com/Nvu1BfJw9J
April 4, 2018
The deleted tweet read: “Analysis by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology laboratory at Porton Down made clear that this was a military grade nerve agent produced in Russia.”
Johnson is now under growing pressure to explain whether the government has shifted its position.
Boris Johnson’s diplomatic gaffes as foreign secretary
Johnson has caused a string of diplomatic incidents with his words and actions
Visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar’s former capital Yangon, Johnson starts reciting Rudyard Kipling’s colonial-era poem The Road to Mandalay. UK ambassador Andrew Patrick steps in and stops him. The poem includes a reference to the Buddha as a “Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud/ Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd”
At a Conservative conference fringe event Johnson draws gasps saying: “There’s a group of UK business people who want to invest in Sirte, on the coast, near where Gaddafi was captured and executed. They literally have a brilliant vision to turn Sirte into the next Dubai. The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away.”
Tory colleague Heidi Allen says the remarks are “100% unacceptable from anyone, let alone the foreign secretary”. A senior Downing Street source says: “We did not feel it was an appropriate choice of words.”
“When I look at what Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it” the foreign secretary tells the foreign affairs committee.
He is later forced to apologise in parliament, accepting that the British government believes, as Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family assert, that the sole purpose of her visit to Iran was for a holiday.
Despite a subsequent visit to Tehran by Johnson, Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains in prison, serving a five-year sentence.
While applying pressure over Brexit arrangements, a leaked document reveals Johnson had suggested the government’s task is not to maintain “no border” in Ireland, but to prevent it from “becoming significantly harder”.
On the radio he goes on to say “There’s no border between Islington, Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from people travelling between those boroughs without any need for border checks.”
In an interview with Deutsche Welle’s Zhanna Nemtsova, Johnson categorically asserts Porton Down informed him the nerve agent came from Russia.
Nemtsova: You argue the source of this nerve agent, novichok, is Russia. How did you manage to find it out so quickly? Does Britain possess samples?
Johnson: Let me be clear with you … When I look at the evidence, I mean the people from Porton Down, the laboratory …
Nemtsova: So they have samples …?
Johnson: They do. And they were absolutely categorical and I asked the guy myself, I said, “Are you sure?” and he said there’s no doubt.
The security minister, Ben Wallace, said the Porton Down scientists had only provided one part of the picture and had never been expected to attribute responsibility for the attack.
He told the BBC: “Scientists are scientists. I, as well as national security, have organised crime [and] terrorism under my portfolio, and when we work with forensic scientists, the scientists tell us what something is. They tell me a gun and a type of gun was used, but the attribution of who used it, exactly how it was used, is a matter for the broader investigation.
“That includes intelligence, detectives if it’s a police investigation, and the scientists as well, and that’s perfectly understandable.”
Wallace, a close ally of the foreign secretary, defended Johnson for suggesting he had received assurances from government scientists that the nerve agent was categorically made in Russia.
“Porton Down will be able to tell you there are very, very, very few people in the world who, first of all, did design novichok – and that was the Russians – and who have developed and stockpiled it. In fact, the task of that is reduced to one,” he said.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “An HMA Moscow [British ambassador Laurie Bristow] briefing on 22 March was tweeted in real time by @UKinRussia and amplified by @foreignoffice to explain what happened in Salisbury to as wide an audience as possible.
“One of the tweets was truncated and did not accurately report our ambassador’s words. We have removed this tweet.”
According to an official transcript of the speech, Bristow’s original words were: “The analysts at Porton Down, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in the UK, established and made clear that this was a military-grade chemical weapon. One of the novichok series; a nerve agent as I said produced in Russia.”
Corbyn, who faced criticism for his initial, cautious response to the novichok allegations, accused Johnson of exaggerating the evidence that Russia was to blame for the Salisbury poisoning.
The Labour leader, asked on a campaign visit to Watford about the foreign secretary’s remarks, said: “He claimed categorically – and I think he used the words 101% – that it had come from Russia.
“Boris Johnson seems to have completely exceeded the information that he had been given and told the world in categorical terms what he believed had happened. And it’s not backed up by the evidence he claimed to have got from Porton Down in the first place. Boris Johnson needs to answer some questions.
He added that Johnson had been left with “egg on his face” over his interview.
However, the European commission said it had never thought that Porton Down had been tasked with identifying the source of the substance used in Salisbury.
The commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein told a Brussels press briefing: “Our understanding is that the role of the experts there was to identify the type of agent that was used, not the source of the agent … They did identify the nerve agent novichok. That is what they have done.”