Jeremy Corbyn was right to be cautious about blaming Moscow for the Skripal poisoning

Bearing in mind Iraq and the general anti-Russian consensus, I am reluctant to trust what ministers were saying. If there was cast-iron evidence that the Russian state 'did it', then the existence of such evidence could not just be taken on trust

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 05 April 2018 23:21 BST
Putin: Russia will investigate poisoning of Russian ex-spy in UK 'in great detail'

Over the past month, Theresa May has received widespread praise for her handling of the ever stranger Skripals affair. Her response can even be said to have revived her fortunes as prime minister and Conservative Party leader, at a time when she was under fire for taking too hard, or more often too soft, a line on Brexit. It was seen as speedy, calm, multilateral, forthright and tough – exemplifying many of the very qualities she was accused of lacking.

Of course, it was a relatively easy call: the iniquities of today’s Russia are something most Conservative MPs, indeed, most MPs full stop, can agree on. Then again, seeing an opportunity and seizing it are what so much of politics is about.

But could – should? – that verdict on Theresa May now be revised? It now seems that the air of utter certainty which has distinguished the approach of the prime minister, the foreign secretary and the defence secretary from the start, and persuaded the vast majority of EU countries and a host of others to join a collective expulsion of Russian diplomats, might have been – how shall we say? – a tad premature.

And guess who was arguing this at the time? Why, the leader of the opposition, who was howled down in the Commons, including by some on his own side, for daring to warn against a rush to judgement and calling for the involvement of international bodies. These were timid enough reservations, which nonetheless earned him the charge of being “a national disgrace” from his own side and in the national media of being “a Kremlin stooge”.

Something similar, by the way, applies to those (few) of us in the media and academia who harboured misgivings similar to Jeremy Corbyn’s. At a time of national crisis, the inference was we were disloyally offering succour to the enemy. Or worse, we were in thrall to Kremlin trolls. Well, no, actually. And not, speaking for myself, because I subscribe to Corbyn’s politics; I don’t.

It was because – bearing in mind the Iraq experience and the general anti-Russian consensus in the transatlantic corridors of power, I was reluctant to trust what ministers were saying. If there was cast-iron evidence that the Russian state (ie Putin) “did it”, then – it seemed to me – that the existence of such evidence could not just be taken on trust.

I am sorry, but “highly likely” and a substance “of a sort developed by Russia”, and supposedly reliable information that Russia has created and “stockpiled” nerve agents “within the last 10 years” don’t do it for me. Such formulations – which seem to betray their intelligence origin by the way – wouldn’t cut it if the Russians used them, or the Americans or the Germans, or anyone. Just because the UK authorities say it does not – for me – give it unique authority.

What these non-qualification qualifications were designed to do – again, it seemed to me – was to encourage a public acceptance of Russian state guilt, while leaving open the possibility of an escape. Judging by social media and the comments “below the line” on many articles supportive of the government’s stance, plenty of people – including presumably otherwise super-patriotic Daily Mail readers – had a similar response. And I doubt they were all – or even largely – Kremlin trolls.

Sergei Lavrov says the British government could have poisoned the Skripals themselves

On occasion, though, the official line was carried too far, chiefly by the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. A clip of his interview with the German equivalent of the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, has him blustering around, eventually claiming that he had been personally assured by the ministry of defence establishment at Porton Down that the novichok nerve agent had definitely come from Russia. A separate foreign office tweet suggested similar confidence on the part of the UK ambassador to Russia. And we had the defence secretary telling Russia, to “shut up”.

Carrying the line too far – or, as it might be put, rushing to judgement – could reflect over confidence or simply amateurishness on the government’s part. Its communications could clearly do with another look. But accusations that led the UK to mobilise an international diplomatic move against Russia and a major standoff that has fuelled warnings of a “new Cold War” should really not be the product of a communications strategy – or, as it might have been described in the not too distant past – of “spin”. Any caveats should have been honestly set out, not muffled in a cloak of “highly likely” and “no other plausible explanation”.

We now have the foreign office deleting its tweet about (not by) our man in Moscow, which is not a good look for a country that is helping spearhead another anti-Russia campaign against the much-hyped phenomenon of “fake news”. And we have a foreign secretary caught on camera with a statement subsequently contradicted, categorically, by the scientists at Porton Down, who said they actually did not know where the nerve agent had come from. Were they concerned, perhaps, that their scientific credentials might be at risk from perceptions of politicisation? On whose initiative – Porton Down’s, the ministry of defence (under whose auspices it is), or the prime minister’s – was that interview arranged?

And once this degree of misrepresentation is allowed, it is hard not to remember other elements of this saga, such as the UK’s certainty that the nerve agent was from the novichok family – to which was then added, or something similar. The now happily disproved confidence that such an attack was almost bound to be fatal, and the fact that Russia offered to cooperate and that it was Russia that first proposed the involvement of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This move was most recently called “perverse”, in a UK statement on the eve of its meeting.

All in all, it is hard with hindsight not to regard Jeremy Corbyn’s caution against rushing to judgement as wise, and an approach that would have strengthened the current position of HM opposition if only his MPs had united behind it.

A senior government minister and his department have been caught out in falsehoods, and those falsehoods have underpinned a foreign policy track that pulled dozens of other countries in behind us. This would seem to me to be a resigning matter for the foreign secretary – especially as it entails a fault – the fault of truth-bending – on which he has form. If the claims made by the UK about Russia and the Skripals show more signs of unravelling, then more heads must roll. The heads of the two intelligence services – MI5 and MI6 – whose predecessors should have had to resign over Iraq – and who come under the auspices of the Foreign Office.

All that would then protect the prime minister would be the perils of Brexit and the reluctance of anyone else at such a time to want the job. Meanwhile there is relief in the Kremlin – believe it or not, the professionalism of Russia’s own communications has come in for domestic criticism over the Skripal case – and Vladimir Putin is expected before too long at the White House. One month on, what looked like a triumph for Theresa May is starting to look rather different.

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