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Burnes John

John Burnes

When he was 30, Communist, John Burnes romantically took up with Patricia Legg, the then 39-year old wife of Sir Thomas Legg. She had met Burnes in 1978, when they were both studying English at the former North London Polytechnic, although it would be three years before friendship turned to romance.

Burns has been described as a former “chairman of the Communist Party in Netherthorpe, Sheffield”, which would presumably have made him chair of what one might call a very small local sub-branch at some point in the 1970s.

Sir Thomas was a former Royal Marine and an under-secretary, on track for fast promotion as a rising star, in the Lord Chancellor’s department in 1981, when his 17-year marriage to his wife, Patricia, collapsed.

Burnes would claim that, as a result, he was persecuted by MI5, who thought he was a KGB agent targeting Sir Thomas. Allegedly, Sir Thomas was asked by his superiors to choose ‘between his job and his wife’, although he denies this. At any rate, Patricia moved in with Burnes at the end of 1981 and they married in 1983 but divorced only two years later.

Though it would appear that Burnes may have formally left the Communist Party at poly, his marriage photo from 1983 clearly has him and his new wife as standing in front of a hammer and sickle on a red flag, presumably displayed at the wedding reception.

Pic: John Burnes at his wedding in 1983

Burnes has noted that after his postgraduate research grant was mysteriously cancelled and he struggled to find work as a teacher, “Pat confirmed that the Education Department had been acting on the instructions of MI5, justifying this on the ground that Government agencies had a duty to counter an organised attempt at `Marxist subversion’.”

Burnes subsequently wrote in the magazine, `Lobster’, which specialises in exposures on the security forces, that Patricia was unhappy with Sir Thomas because of his neglect of her due to his work. His explanation for his marriage to Patricia failing was the intense strain that followed due to MI5’s suspicions of him of being a Soviet agent. 

“Towards the end of our marriage, she accused me of having targeted Legg (through her) because of his position,” he wrote. After fully investigating me, an investigation of which I was unaware at the time, the Security Service, with a little help from Legg, took the view that Legg had indeed been targeted by the Communist Party in concert with its Soviet allies. The conclusion drawn was that I was some kind of political operator and had probably never left the Communist Party and, after having become involved in student politics, I had come across a tempting target – Mrs Legg.” 

He claimed Patricia had her suspicions. “When Pat had burst into tears early in the relationship, asking me where I met my Soviet friends, I’d thought it a bad joke on MI5’s part,” he said. “Later, to test me out, Pat casually arranged little trips taking in Portman Square, where Soviet spy Sir Anthony Blunt had lived, and the MI5 registry in Curzon Street. I still didn’t get it. She arranged a little trip to Portland Bill in Dorset – where Soviet agents Harry Houghton and Ethel Gee had worked at a naval weapons testing base – and asked if it had any historical significance.”

John Burnes has maintained an interest in security service matters. A Guardian article about New Labour’s links to MI5 and MI6 in 2003 describes how, in 1986, “Peter Mandelson was seen having a drink with Alan Petty, a senior MI6 officer, near the British Museum. They were spotted by John Burnes, a researcher who had become friendly with Petty. Burnes recalls that the two were having an “intense, serious discussion” but when he went over to greet him, the MI6 officer “completely blanked me”.

Sir Thomas rose to become permanent secretary of the Lord Chancellor’s Department, retiring from the Civil Service in 1998. He chaired an investigation into the alleged breaking of an arms embargo to Sierra Leone, which cleared Tony Blair’s Government of blame.

Legg was at the centre of the MP’s expenses row, which culminated in him ordering some MPs to pay back thousands of pounds in expenses.

Main source: Daily Mail 18th October 2009