Skripal poisoning: deleted Foreign Office tweet leads to awkward questions
Boris Johnson under pressure to explain whether position has changed after tweet blaming Moscow is deleted
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.
But Johnson later hit back, accusing the Labour leader of playing Russias game.
The deletion, immediately seized on by the Russian embassy, has deepened the governments difficulties after British scientists at the UKs 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 embassys Twitter feed pointed out that the 20 March tweet on a presentation by Britains ambassador to Moscow on the Salisbury attack had disappeared.
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.
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 its a police investigation, and the scientists as well, and thats 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 ambassadors words. We have removed this tweet.
According to an official transcript of the speech, Bristows 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 secretarys 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 its 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.
In a series of tweets on Wednesday afternoon, Johnson dismissed Corbyns response, writing: It is lamentable that Jeremy Corbyn is now playing Russias game and trying to discredit the UK over Salisbury attack… 28 other countries have been so convinced by UK case they have expelled Russians. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn chooses to side with the Russian spin machine.
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.