14 Mar 2018

Corbyn refuses to toe May’s line on Russia

Mrs May has, as expected, announced Russian expulsions and other measures in retaliation for the Salisbury incident. The PM attacked Russia’s complete disdain for Western norms and attacked the sarcasm deployed by official Russian outlets as three individuals lie seriously ill in hospital.

Jeremy Corbyn would not row in behind that view. He and his closest allies believe one of their greatest and proudest moments was standing out against the crowd over the Iraq war. They felt hugely vindicated when public opinion came round to their view that it was a war fought on a false prospectus. So Mr Corbyn stuck to the line he tried out on Monday – we shouldn’t rush to judgement, we must keep talking – and he did so in front of ranks of glum faces on his own backbenches.

Mr Corbyn’s spokesman, briefing reporters after the Commons exchanges, suggested that the Labour leader was not convinced that the intelligence pointed without question to the Russian state as perpetrator of the act. He acknowledged that Mr Corbyn had received confidential briefings from government officials on the subject (as have the heads of the devolved administrations). The spokesman pointed to the 45-minute Iraq Dossier claim and said “there’s a history in relation to WMD which is problematic, to put it mildly.”

Some frontbenchers are pretty uncomfortable with that position and some backbenchers like Pat McFadden and John Woodcock said in the Commons that their leader didn’t speak for them on this issue. Behind the scenes, some Labour MPs’ language has been a lot more acid.

The scale of today’s expulsions ranks quite high in the history of such moves. Alec Douglas-Home as Foreign Secretary in 1971 expelled around 100 Russian diplomats over spying activity, but that was from a total 500-strong USSR diplomatic contingent in London.

Today’s 23 expulsions is from a total of 59 on the FCO diplomatic list for Russia, which would suggest it made up nearly 40 per cent of the current delegation, but under the Vienna Convention the team afforded diplomatic protection could extend to consular and administrative staff who are not full-blown diplomats.

The government hopes this goes further than Mr Putin was expecting and might make him swallow hard. But it is clear there’s a decent possibility things could escalate. In answer to Tory MP Julian Lewis asking whether she would throw the Russian Ambassador out too, Mrs May suggested that some measures were being held in reserve. If Mr Putin ups the retaliation to a new level, she may in return up her response.

The statement from the PM specified that “undeclared Russian intelligence” personnel were being expelled. A senior government official explained this meant some “channels of communication” would remain on British soil.

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