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15 March 2018

The stand off with Russia has set the Labour party clock back to spring 2017

Corbyn's stance could yet turn out to be insufficiently well-hedged.

By Stephen Bush

The United Kingdom’s stand-off with Russia has had two significant consequences already: 23 Russian diplomats are being expelled from the United Kingdom, and the Labour party’s internal clock has been reset to spring 2017. 

Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to the Commons, in which he stopped short of accepting the government’s case on Russian responsibility for the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and Seumas Milne’s briefing to journalists that Russia may not have been responsible for the attack, has further angered Labour MPs. Nia Griffith, who has long been willing to put clear water between herself and the leader’s office as shadow defence secretary, went so far as to criticise Milne by name in an interview, while several backbench MPs have broken ranks to criticise him directly, too.  

Speaking of Labour MPs: 18 of them have put their names to an early day motion “unequivocally” accepting Russia’s blame for the attack, in a not particularly coded criticism of their leader. The Guardian and the Mirror both criticise Corbyn’s approach in their leaders. 

Foreign policy is Corbyn’s thing: staffers in John McDonnell’s office used to refer to him as “our foreign secretary” when the two were in internal opposition. Foreign policy under Corbyn would be a big departure not only from the policy of the present government, but from every postwar Labour government, too. Milne has undoubtedly “become the story” but frankly the foreign policy position of the Labour leader’s office is set by the leader. Even Milne, for all his influence, is merely one of the voices Corbyn listens to. 

For Corbynsceptics, it exposes their central problem: they don’t want to leave the Labour party, but they can’t win a fight with Corbyn either. One of their major problems is that as far as the party grassroots go it feels as if the only dividing lines the sceptics have with the party leadership is that they like bombs, the single market and McDonalds restaurants, only one of which is particularly popular among Labour party activists. Their crisis looks set to continue no matter what. 

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But for Conservatives, that gives them hope that, come what may, as one Cabinet minister put it to me yesterday, “Britain won’t make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister”. 

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Are they right? No idea. Ask me in 2022. But there are a couple of known unknowns in this latest row that are worth considering. The first is that we know that one of the sentiments Corbyn is successfully tapping into is general fatigue with intervention after the interventionist lean of the government of Tony Blair and indeed David Cameron’s intervention in Libya, too. 

It’s easy to see how voters will look at a big, scary nation in Russia, at an uncertain ally in the White House and a divided ally in the European Union, and decide that actually, it’s all too worrying and the prudent thing is simply to step away from it all. Most of us aren’t former double agents, after all.  While Jeremy Corbyn is not quite a founding shareholder as far as scepticism of foreign policy adventures go he certainly got in early as far as buying stock went, and its electoral value may be some way short of its peak. And as far as Theresa May goes, the expectation that she will “look strong” as a result does hinge rather on some kind of victory emerging from the stand-off with Vladimir Putin, which seems fairly unlikely, to put it mildly. If the United Kingdom’s austerity-stretched defences and threadbare alliances are left exposed – and don’t rule out the possibility that the unity among Nato and the EU will not last very long – then again, there is a political benefit to Corbyn, too. 

But equally, that the attack happened here in the United Kingdom may change things as far as public opinion goes. We don’t know, absent a sustained set of polling, and thus far we don’t have anything other than hunch.

Another potential complication comes via EuroIntelligence, which highlighted a Die Welt interview that has had little pick-up in the British press: according to former German defence official Hans Rühle, anyone who comes into direct contact with Novichok will die. If that turns out to be the case not only for the Skripals but for others caught in the attack, the public may decide that merely expelling 23 diplomats and a Royal boycott of the World Cup is rather thin gruel. Corbyn’s portfolio could yet turn out to be insufficiently well-hedged if the public mood recovers some of its pre-Iraq appetite for intervention abroad.