Litvinenko inquiry is launched: now there's a coincidence!

Until now, government didn't want to risk Russian relations: after MH17, we're happy to upset Putin

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:41 ON Tue 22 Jul 2014

Home Secretary Theresa May is to announce today that a public inquiry will be held into the fatal poisoning in London of the one-time Russian KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, raising the very obvious question - why has the government waited until now?

May will argue that she was forced into it by a court ruling in February. But Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, is among the growing chorus of commentators who clearly see the timing wrapped up in the downing of MH17 over Ukraine, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists with missiles supplied by Moscow.

Until now, May has always said that a public inquiry would not be helpful to Britain’s international relations, meaning the Foreign Office didn’t want to upset former KGB chief Vladimir Putin with an inquiry into his old outfit's methods for silencing his critics. Why has she changed her mind? To put it bluntly, Britain no longer cares if it upsets the Russian president.

"The security services have long been telling anybody who would listen that he [Litvinenko] was murdered by the Russian state with their direct involvement," Robinson said on Radio 4's Today programme this morning. "He was poisoned in other words.

"Yet the government has resisted a public inquiry even when there have been calls from the family and the judge in the inquest. I think what the government has decided to do is to lift their objections at a diplomatically more convenient time."

Or as he put it more bluntly in a later tweet: "Home Sec long resisted calls for Litvinenko enquiry citing 'international relations'. Good relations with Putin no longer a priority." 

Litvinenko, a 43-year-old ex-KGB agent who fled to Britain in 2000, died from poisoning by radioactive polonium-210 after having tea with two Russian men, one of them a former KGB agent, at a London hotel in 2006.

His family believes he was working for MI6 at the time and that he was killed on the direct orders of the Kremlin. In February, his widow, Marina Litvinenko, won a High Court ruling that the Home Secretary should reconsider her decision not to hold an inquiry and to make do with a judge-led inquest. 

The ruling means that, for the first time, there can be an official investigation into whether the Russian state and the KGB were involved.

Meanwhile, David Cameron’s new Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, will try to persuade his colleagues at a meeting of EU foreign ministers today to agree tough united sanctions against Putin’s Russia over the downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane. 

It’s like herding cats: France is selling Putin two warships (something Cameron yesterday told MPs would be “unthinkable” for the UK) and has no intention of halting that sale, while Germany's Angela Merkel won’t shut off the tap of Russian gas to Europe.

Cameron has few grounds for complaint, however, because we know he has not been prepared to exert any pressure on Moscow by stopping Russian oligarchs coming to London with their money.

At the time of Russia's annexation of Crimea from the Ukraine, Cameron's deputy national security adviser Hugh Powell blundered into Downing Street carrying a briefing note on which cameras could easily pick out the words: "UK should not support for now, trade sanctions ... or close London’s financial centre to Russians."

So the best Cameron can do is poke Putin in the eye with the Litvinenko inquiry, and hope that Hammond gets a little more respect from his fellow foreign ministers than he did from fellow prime ministers when he tried and failed to block Jean-Claude Juncker's appointment as EU Commission president. ·