Boris Johnson is facing embarrassment over his claims about the Salisbury poisoning attack after the Foreign Office deleted a tweet claiming Russia had produced the nerve agent.
The Foreign Secretary was under pressure to explain the change as the Russian Embassy in London ridiculed Britain’s stance linking Moscow to the attempted murder of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
Jeremy Corbyn said that Johnson had been “left with egg on his face” and had some “serious questions to answer”. Johnson hit back that the Labour leader had chosen to “side with the Russian spin machine”.
Ministers were already on the defensive after the head of the Porton Down defence laboratory revealed on Tuesday that it had “not identified the precise source” of the poison.
But in a further blow, it emerged that the FCO had deleted a tweet claiming that the UK’s leading defence scientists had indeed concluded that the nerve agent was “produced in Russia”.
HuffPost has found a cached version of the deleted tweet.
The Russian embassy pointed out the discrepancy on its social media feed on Wednesday.
The blunder began on March 22 when the Foreign Office live-tweeted a presentation by Laurie Bristow, the British ambassador in Moscow, on the Salisbury incident.
Contrary to the FCO tweet, the ambassador had not stated that Porton Down had itself “made clear” that the Salisbury poison had been “produced in Russia”.
A Foreign Office spokesman confirmed that the message had indeed been deleted, stating that it had not been an accurate reflection of the account given by Bristow.
“An HMA [Her Majesty’s Ambassador] Moscow briefing on 22 March was tweeted in real time by @UKinRussia and amplied by @foreignoffice, to explain what happened in Salisbury to as wide an audience as possible,” the spokesman said.
“One of the tweets was truncated and did not accurately report our Ambassador’s words. We have removed this tweet.”
Foreign Office sources confirmed that the tweet had been removed on Wednesday.
But Labour’s Diane Abbott was unimpressed.
One Government source told HuffPost UK: “On the back of the interview by the head of Porton Down, we reviewed our social media content and found an incorrect tweet.
“This is standard practice in such a review. There is nothing sinister about any of this. Basic human error was to blame for the original tweet, nothing else.”
The Government insists that Porton Down is just one of four sources of key intelligence on the incident and other evidence points to Russia being responsible for the attack.
As Moscow sought to exploit the row, Britain’s delegation to the Organisation for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons branded ‘peverse’ Russia’s decision to call an extraordinary meeting of the watchdog to discuss the Salisbury poisoning.
The row had been sparked on Tuesday after Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at the facility, told Sky News on Tuesday that the lab had not identified the nerve agent as made in Russia.
Critics seized on the contrast between the scientists’ caution and the Foreign Secretary’s interview with a German news channel in which he declared British defence experts had told him that the Kremlin was behind the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
Asked directly how he could assert that the source of the Novichok nerve agent was Russia, the Foreign Secretary replied that he had ‘interrogated’ the scientists.
He then told DW.com: “People from Porton Down, they were absolutely categorical. I asked the guy myself I said ‘are you sure?’ and he said there’s no doubt.”
Corbyn told ITV News: “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. The Foreign Secretary made a statement, the Foreign Office put out a tweet in support of what he said. Porton Down then said they couldn’t and wouldn’t identify where it had come from so they then deleted the tweet.
“Where does that leave the Foreign Secretary? Egg on his face for the statement he made on German television.”
Johnson tweeted his own riposte to Corbyn’s attack on him.
A Foreign Office spokesman told HuffPost Johnson was only referring in his German inteview to the fact that the agent was a ‘Novichok’ - the name for the category of nerve agent - not that it was made in Russia.
“The Foreign Secretary was making clear that Porton Down were sure it was a Novichok – a point they have reinforced.
“He goes on in the same interview to make clear why based on that information, additional intelligence and the lack of alternative explanation from the Russians, we have reached the conclusion we have.
“What the Foreign Secretary said then, and what Porton Down have said recently, is fully consistent with what we have said throughout. It is Russia that is putting forward multiple versions of events and obfuscating the truth.”
Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott said: “Boris Johnson misled the public when he claimed that Porton Down officials confirmed to him that Russia was the source of the nerve agent used in the Salisbury attack.”
Jeremy Corbyn faced criticism from Tories and some of his own MPs last month when he asked for more evidence to show Putin had ordered the attack, and refused to rule out the possibility that Moscow had lost control of the material.
Abbott told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Corbyn had been vindicated for his stance, while Johnson’s own approach begged new questions.
“I can’t speak in detail about the briefing. It doesn’t surprise me that Porton Down are saying this because the security services were always very cautious in what they said,” she said.
“What surprised me was that so many people were willing to rush onto the media and say it was unequivocally Putin. That’s not necessarily what we were told.”
“Boris Johnson going on international media and saying he was 101% certain it was Putin. I don’t understand where he got that information from.
“We will I hope get some credit for taking a more thoughtful approach and asking the right questions.”
Although Aitkenhead stressed that the nerve agent’s production was “something only in the capabilities of a state actor [ie a Government]”, Downing Street was forced to point out on Tuesday that Porton Down provided “only one part of the intelligence picture” that pointed to Moscow’s responsibility.
The defence lab was forced to tweet a clarification too.
But Russia pounced on Aitkenhead’s remarks. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Britain would have to apologise to Russia for its “mad accusations”.
The Russian embassy in London said the UK’s claims that Moscow was behind the attack was a “bluff”.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert and former commander of the British Army’s Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment, urged the Government to counter Russian ‘disinformation’ by producing its own evidence as to why Moscow was to blame.
“Security organisations are always very circumspect about giving the evidence because it can betray a source,” he told the Today programme.
“What is clear now is that somebody in the government, whether it is the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister, needs to lay out exactly what the supporting evidence is, that is compelling, that doesn’t betray sources.”