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Labour says it deserves 'credit' for questioning if Russia was to blame for Salisbury nerve agent

Diane Abbott says Porton Down's admission that it could not prove novichok came from Russia justifies Opposition's much-criticised stance

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 04 April 2018 09:08 BST
Diane Abbott: Labour deserves 'credit' for questioning if Russia was to blame for Salisbury nerve agent

Labour says it deserves “credit” for questioning if Russia was to blame for the Salisbury nerve agent, after the Porton Down defence laboratory admitted it could not identify where it came from.

Diane Abbott seized on the comments to hit back at the fierce criticism of Jeremy Corbyn for refusing to join in the rapid condemnation of Vladimir Putin, when the poisonings took place last month.

The shadow home secretary said the security services had been “very cautious” in the briefings Labour had received, rather than pointing the finger directly at Moscow.

She criticised those – including Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary – who “rushed into the media to say it was unequivocally Putin”, adding: “That’s not necessarily what we were told.”

“We will hopefully get some credit for taking a more thoughtful approach and asking the right questions,” Ms Abbott argued.

Mr Corbyn faced angry criticism from his own backbenchers when he refused to condemn Russia over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, in Commons clashes last month.

While he called the attack an “appalling act of violence”, his speech was met with cries of “shame” from Conservative MPs because the Labour leader stepped short of agreeing Moscow was responsible.

Two weeks ago, Mr Johnson was asked by an interviewer on Deutsche Welle, the German broadcaster, how the UK had been able to find out so quickly that the novichok used originated from Russia.

He replied: “When I look at the evidence, the people from Porton Down, the laboratory, they were absolutely categorical.

“I asked the guy myself. I said: 'Are you sure?' And he said: 'There's no doubt.' So we have very little alternative but to take the action that we have taken.”

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Ms Abbott criticised the foreign secretary for suggesting the UK was “101 per cent certain it was Putin”, saying: “I don’t understand where he got that information from.”

Gary Aitkenhead, the head of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, caused dismay in No 10 when he said he had not identified the “precise source” of the novichok used.

Porton Down had identified it as a military-grade novichok nerve agent which could probably be deployed only by a nation state, but could not prove it came from Russia, he said.

Downing Street was forced into a damage limitation exercise, arguing the Porton Down tests were “only one part of the intelligence picture” and insisting there was still “no other plausible explanation” than Russian culpability.

The episode threatened to fracture the international coalition Theresa May has successfully built against Moscow, with the expulsion of 150 diplomats from its embassies around the world.

An ally of Angela Merkel raised doubts over Britain's global push to isolate President Putin, by persuading its allies to act.

Armin Laschet, one of five deputy chairmen of the German chancellor's Christian Democratic Union, tweeted. “If one forces nearly all Nato countries into solidarity, shouldn't one have certain evidence?”

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