Russian spy poisoning: Furious MPs condemn Jeremy Corbyn's response to statement on Sailsbury attack

Labour leader accused of 'policy of appeasement' after refusing to directly blame Russia for poisoning former spy

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 14 March 2018 15:31 GMT
Pat McFadden makes veiled criticism of Jeremy Corbyn's response to Russia spy poisoning

Jeremy Corbyn has faced widespread criticism from MPs over his response to Theresa May’s statement on the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury.

The Labour leader used his parliamentary response to ask whether samples of the nerve agent used in the attack had been sent to Moscow, and criticise Government over budget cuts to the diplomatic service.

While he called the poisoning of the Skripals an “appalling act of violence”, Mr Corbyn angered MPs by refusing to directly condemn Moscow over its alleged responsibility for the poisoning, which involved the “military grade” nerve agent Novichok.

His speech was met with cries of “shame” from Conservative MPs and clear frustration among his own backbenchers.

The Labour leader said: "Can the Prime Minister update the House on what conversations, if any, she has had with the Russian Government and while suspending planned high-level contact does the Prime Minister agree that it is essential to maintain a robust dialogue with Russia?

"We should urge our international allies to join us and call on Russia to reveal without delay full details of its chemical weapons programme."

On the issue of diplomatic service budgets, Mr Corbyn said: "It is, as we on these benches have expressed before, a matter of huge regret that our country's diplomatic capacity has been stripped back, with cuts of 25 per cent in the last five years.”

In response, Ms May called on the Labour leader to directly condemn the “culpability” of the Russian state.

She said: "It is clear from the conversations I have had with allies that we have a consensus with our allies, it was clear from the remarks that were made by backbenchers across the whole of this House on Monday that there is a consensus across the backbenches of this House.

"I am only sorry that the consensus does not go as far as the Right Honourable Gentleman who could have taken the opportunity - as the UK Government has done - to condemn the culpability of the Russian state.”

Ms May was backed by a number of MPs from all parties, who criticised Mr Corbyn with varying degrees of subtlety.

The DUP’s Sammy Wilson accused the Labour leader of “a policy of appeasement”.

He said: "We welcome the decisive action which has been taken by the Prime Minister today and it sits in contrast with the policy of appeasement that we have heard from the front bench of the Labour Party.”

A number of Labour MPs also made thinly-disguised attacks on their party leader.

Pat McFadden said: “Responding with strength and resolve when your country is under threat is an essential component of political leadership.

“There is a Labour tradition that understands that and it has been understood by prime ministers of all parties who have stood at that dispatch box."

John Woodcock, a vocal critic of Mr Corbyn, said of the Prime Minister’s statement: “A clear majority of Labour MPs, along with the leaders of every other party, support the firm stance she is taking.”

In a thinly-veiled swipe at her party leader, Yvette Cooper, the former Shadow Home Secretary, said Russia’s actions "must be met with unequivocal condemnation".

Mr Corbyn had already faced criticism over his initial response to the poisoning after he used a Commons statement to raise the issue of Russian donations to the Conservative Party.

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His latest speech provoked fury among opponents, with Tory MPs leading the attacks.

Former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said: “In rising to this challenge - as others have shown, they also too in positions of leadership, have risen to the challenge - I'm only sorry that others in such positions have fallen well short.”

Anna Soubry, who has herself been critical of Ms May in the past, said: "It is noticeable that the length and breadth of this place has completely supported not just the wise words and the leadership of the Prime Minister but also her firm actions, with the notable exception of the front bench of the Opposition. That is a shameful, shameful moment."

Tory MP Nick Boles wrote on Twitter: “Today Jeremy Corbyn faced a simple test: would he condemn the Russian government for launching a chemical weapons attack on the UK, and back the actions of the British government? His failure to do so reveals where his loyalties lie."

Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader, and Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, gave their full backing to the Prime Minister. One Conservative MP could be heard shouting “That’s how you do it” as Mr Blackford finished speaking.

Mr Corbyn's spokesman said the Labour leader had not seen enough evidence to prove that Russia was responsible for the Salisbury attack and claimed UK security services' record on weapons of mass destruction was "problematic".

He said: "The Government has access to information and intelligence on this matter which others don't.

"However, also there is a history in relation to weapons of mass destruction and intelligence which is problematic, to put it mildly.

"So, I think the right approach is to seek the evidence to follow international treaties, particularly in relation to prohibitive chemical weapons."

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