If Theresa May thinks the international support she's had over Skripal will translate into real action by the EU and US, she's wrong

The Salisbury affair may reveal that the UK cannot rely on ‘old friends’ to turn supportive rhetoric into tough action, and that we have not yet found ‘new allies’. Welcome to the UK’s new world – not so splendid isolation

I doubt May will persuade the EU to opt for tougher sanctions when its leaders meet in Brussels next week
I doubt May will persuade the EU to opt for tougher sanctions when its leaders meet in Brussels next week

So far, so good for Theresa May. She has won verbal backing from the United States, Germany and France, who have blamed Russia for the horrific nerve agent attack in Salisbury. But there is always a but and this is it: the Prime Minister will find it much harder to translate such pledges of support into action such as tougher economic sanctions against Moscow. Warm words may not be enough in a new cold war.

The timing could hardly be worse for May – which, perhaps, is one reason why Vladimir Putin might have sanctioned the attack on British soil. The UK has been in the vanguard of EU moves to impose sanctions on Russia since it annexed Crimea, while France and Germany have been more equivocal. They rely on Russian gas, and do not want to break ties with Moscow, however badly it behaves. Propping up the Assad regime as it kills its own people in Syria, shooting down a passenger plane over Ukraine, cyber attacks and alleged interference in the US election, have not persuaded the EU to tighten the sanctions. Having attended EU summits where sanctions were discussed, I suspect that, alongside a recognition that the Salisbury poisoning could have happened in Paris or Berlin, there will be a tinge of schadenfreude because of the Russian zillions that have flowed into London.

Theresa May: 'We do hold Russia culpable for this brazen, brazen act and despicable act'

I doubt May will persuade the EU to opt for tougher sanctions when its leaders meet in Brussels next week. Extending the existing programme, perhaps for a year instead of six months, might be as good as it gets. We’ll never know for sure, but Brexit probably makes it less likely that the EU27 will go the extra mile for the UK over Russia. Why would they when we’re about to walk out the door? That’s realpolitik.

Nor can the UK rely on the unequivocal support of the US, as we could have done with a different occupant in the White House. Donald Trump came on side this week, eventually. But who can guess his next move? Not even his closest allies.

The limitations of the post-Brexit “global Britain” strategy are now exposed. The cross-party Foreign Affairs Select Committee rightly warned this week that it could be viewed as “a superficial branding exercise” which “risks undermining UK interests by damaging our reputation overseas and eroding support for a global outlook here at home”.

The threadbare strategy is based on “old friends and new allies”. The Salisbury affair may reveal that the UK cannot rely on “old friends” to turn supportive rhetoric into tough action, and that we have not yet found “new allies”. Welcome to the UK’s new world – not so splendid isolation.

To date, May has handled the crisis well and displayed the strong leadership the country expects. The same cannot be said for Jeremy Corbyn. At one level, one can admire him for sticking to his guns and the moral compass that has guided him on foreign policy for the past 40 years. He knew he would face flak from Labour MPs if he failed to blame Russia when May announced the expulsion of 23 diplomats on Wednesday; his backbenchers had served notice by criticising his approach during a Commons statement on Salisbury on Monday.

Corbyn is no apologist for the Putin regime, but his equivocation allows his enemies to portray him as such. It’s not about “bitter Blairites” seeking revenge, as the Corbynistas see it. Loyalist shadow cabinet members like Emily Thornberry and Sir Keir Starmer agree with his backbench critics. In his article in The Guardian today, which has dismayed many Labour MPs who sensed he was shifting to a more sensible position yesterday, Corbyn warns of “a drift to conflict.” But no one is talking about military action.

The Labour leader has pressed the Iraq button but this time it doesn’t work. Russia’s chemical weapons exist. They have been used on British soil. The right parallel is not Iraq in 2003 but Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. A left-wing opposition Leader, Michael Foot, a founder member of CND who described himself as an “inveterate peace-monger”, backed the Falklands War. Corbyn did not, like his mentor Tony Benn.

Foot was right. Sometimes even a peace-monger must talk tough if they aspire to lead the country, and maintain a united front with their political enemy in the national interest. True, public attitudes to foreign invasions have changed since Iraq. But I doubt they have changed much about what to do when we are under attack.

Corbyn’s stance on Russia may please “old friends” in his loyal fanbase, but it will harm his attempt to win the “new allies” among voters he will need to win power.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in