Theresa May today announced that the UK would expel 23 diplomats in response to alleged Russian involvement in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. The move represents the single biggest expulsion for over 30 years. “Through these expulsions we will fundamentally degrade Russian intelligence capability in the UK for years to come,” May said in a House of Commons statement. “And if they seek to rebuild it, we will prevent them from doing so.”
The Prime Minister acted after the expiry of a midnight deadline to Russia to explain how a Soviet-era nerve agent came to be used in the attack on the former spy. “Their response has demonstrated complete disdain for the gravity of these events,” May told MPs. “There is no alternative conclusion other than the Russian state was responsible for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter.”
The Prime Minister also revoked an invitation to the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and announced that neither UK ministers nor memebers of the Royal Family would attend the Fifa World Cup in Russia in June, May added: “We will freeze Russian state assets wherever we have evidence that they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents. And, led by the National Crime Agency, we will continue to bring all the capabilities of UK law enforcement to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites. There is no place for these people – or their money – in our country.”
Former double agent Skripal, 66, and his daughter, Yulia, 33, remain critically ill in hospital after being exposed to the nerve agent Novichok on 4 March.
Conservative MPs erupted in angry jeers at Jeremy Corbyn’s response to May’s statement after the Labour leader highlighted cuts to the UK’s diplomatic service. Corbyn also suggested that it remained a possibility that Russia lost control of the nerve agent. “If the government believes that it is still a possibility that Russia negligently lost control of a military-grade nerve agent, what action is being taken through the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] with our allies?” he said. Corbyn also asked what response had been made to Russia’s request for a sample of the nerve agent to test.
May replied that Russia had already been given the chance to explain the origin of the nerve agent. “It was clear from remarks that were made by backbenchers across the whole of the 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.”
Many Labour MPs, including home affairs select committee chair Yvette Cooper, later intervened and offered their full support to May, quietly undermining Corbyn’s response..