Labour’s Shadow Cabinet publicly split over Jeremy Corbyn’s Russia stance

Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith and Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith both spoke following backbench anger over Mr Corbyn’s Commons appearance on Wednesday

Joe Watts,Ashley Cowburn
Thursday 15 March 2018 11:21
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Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith publicly undermines Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Russian spy poisoning

The Shadow Cabinet has publicly split over Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Russia, with one frontbencher contradicting the leader and another backing an article that said he looked “eager to exonerate a hostile power”.

Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith and Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith both spoke following backbench anger over Mr Corbyn’s Commons appearance on Wednesday.

After the Labour leader refused to blame Moscow for the Salisbury attack involving a Russian-made nerve agent, Ms Griffith said the frontbench position is that Russia bears responsibility.

Mr Smith took to social media to throw his weight behind an article that said Mr Corbyn’s position was “dispiriting” and that he had effectively urged the Prime Minister to “acquiesce” to Russia.

The Labour leader’s Commons appearance was followed by a briefing from his spokesman Seumas Milne, who said that accepting the Government’s assessment that Russia is to blame is “problematic” because of what happened with intelligence ahead of the Iraq War.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Ms Griffith said she sought to realign Labour’s position with the Government’s, saying: “We very much accept that what the Prime Minister said, that this was a very sophisticated agent and that Russia is responsible for this attack, and therefore we are fully supporting the measures which the Government is taking including the expulsion of the 23 diplomats.”

Asked why Mr Corbyn had not said that, she added: “Well some of us perhaps speak in different ways, and perhaps I speak in a more plain speaking way.

“But he has made it very clear in the subsequent statement that we are fully supportive of the Government’s actions, because we accept what the Prime Minister has said and that Russia is responsible.”

Pushed on why the leader had not taken that position when he spoke, she said: “The important thing is, that is our position now. That very strongly is our frontbench position.”

The row over the 4 March attack involving a Russian-made “Novichok” nerve agent that left ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in a serious condition, is set to deepen today with Moscow planning how it will retaliate against Ms May’s actions, which also include asset freezes and new powers to tackle people planning “hostile activity”.

Ms Griffith went on to dismiss claims by Mr Milne that the situation was comparable to the way intelligence was presented on weapons of mass destruction ahead of the Iraq War.

She said: “I think this situation is very different. We have two people, the attempted murder of two people, plus a police officer seriously ill and clearly other lives endangered.

“We have very clear evidence, that’s what we need to be talking about now, we need to be looking at this particular situation.”

Owen Smith, who once challenged Mr Corbyn for the leadership but was later taken into the Shadow Cabinet, tweeted his support for an editorial in The Guardian.

It said: “The leader of the opposition’s response to the Prime Minister was dispiriting. Jeremy Corbyn invited Ms May to acquiesce to Russia’s requests that a sample be sent to Moscow for verification – on the supposition that the Kremlin might then honestly try to match it with its own stores.

“He sounded too keen to find another explanation for the use of the nerve agent Novichok in the attack.”

It added: “Mr Corbyn’s reluctance to share Ms May’s basic analysis of the Salisbury incident made him look eager to exonerate a hostile power.”

Mr Smith said: “This Guardian Editorial is absolutely right on Russia – and the resolute, united strength we need to demonstrate in our response.”

A Labour spokesman said today: “The Government has laid out two alternatives, that Russia is either directly responsible or culpable because it lost control of this nerve agent.

“Yesterday, we agreed that the evidence overwhelmingly points to those two alternatives. The Russian authorities must be held to account on the basis of the evidence and our response must be both decisive and proportionate.”

But on Wednesday in the Commons, Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chairwoman of the Home Affairs Committee, was among those who differentiated herself from the leader’s position.

She said Russia’s actions must be met with “unequivocal condemnation”, while long-time Corbyn critic John Woodcock said: “This is a day for the House to speak as one for the nation, and Ms May will be reassured to hear that a clear majority of Labour MPs, alongside the leaders of every other party, support the firm stance which she is taking.”

Labour MP Pat McFadden earlier told the chamber: “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 despatch box.

“That means when chemical weapons are used, we need more than words, but deeds.”

Backbenchers Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie and Stephen Doughty also made comments supportive of Ms May’s stance.

Labour backbencher John Woodcock tabled an early day motion “unequivocally” accepting the “Russian state’s culpability” for the attack, and supporting “fully” the statement made by Ms May in the Commons.

The motion was swiftly signed by a number of prominent critics of Mr Corbyn, some of whom went public with their criticism of Mr Milne.

Labour MP Anna Turley tweeted: “I’m afraid Seumas doesn’t speak for my Labour or British values”. Chuka Umunna said: “Mr Milne’s comments do not represent the views of the majority of our voters, members or MPs”.

But responding, Mr Milne was defiant, saying: “In these kinds of crises there are often initial reactions which aren’t necessarily later backed up by reality or fact.

“I think Jeremy’s record in relation to judgement on internationally related crises is probably better than anyone else in the House of Commons, he has proved to make the right call time and again over the last 15 to 20 years, in particular when many others made the wrong call, and those calls have disastrous consequences.”

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