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4 April 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

How the Skripals’ poisoning has strengthened Theresa May’s position

As is so often the case, the person with questions to answer is Boris Johnson.

By Stephen Bush

Is it Iraq all over again? Porton Down’s chief executive, Gary Aitkenhead, has caused a stir after telling the press that the government’s research centre had been unable to prove that the Novichok nerve agent used in the attack on the Skripals was made in Russia.

The truth is a more everyday story about how politicians and journalists (mis)report science: you can’t crack open a molecule to find a signed ident saying “Love and kisses, from Vladimir”, although Porton Down were able to ascertain that the nerve agent was Novichok and was overwhelmingly likely to have been produced by a nation state.

That means that the case it was Russia comes down (and would always come down to) the intelligence, which has been enough to convince effectively every British ally to expel Russian diplomats, but means that, regardless of whether you agree with him or not, Seumas Milne’s querying of British intelligence was fair comment: either you buy their assessment, or you don’t. (Though one feels that were they faking it, Porton Down would be sufficiently in on it to release a statement claiming that they had cracked open a molecule to find a “Made in Moscow” blue tick or some such.)

As is so often the case, the person with questions to answer is Boris Johnson. It was him who, in an interview with Deutsche Welle, claimed that Porton Down could prove that the nerve agent was Russian-made – and, not for the first time, the government is essentially arguing that Johnson, rather like the Book of Genesis, should be read allegorically rather than literally.

That’s one reason why Theresa May’s position is, if anything, strengthening. Yes, she is, for the moment, seen to have had “a good crisis” at Westminster. But her other asset is that when Tory MPs look at the alternatives, persisting with the PM for a little longer doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. 

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