There is no subject that divides Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs more than foreign policy. Though the party is able to broadly unite around issues such as austerity, the NHS and housing, its divisions are exposed whenever geopolitics dominates.
The fallout to Corbyn’s response to Theresa May’s statement on Russia has provided one of the most notable examples since the Labour leader’s 2015 election. After Corbyn refused to blame the Russian state for the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal (leaving open the possibility that the nerve agent was deployed by another actor), his own MPs rose to condemn him by implication.
Yvette Cooper, former shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, Ben Bradshaw, Pat McFadden and Chris Bryant (who once refused to become shadow defence secretary over Corbyn’s stance on Russia) were among those who offered their support to May and sharply distanced themselves from their leader.
The Russian state, Cooper said, “should be met with unequivocal condemnation”. May, who Cooper once shadowed, thanked her former opponent and added: “I know it is representative of many of her friends on the backbenches opposite.”
But it was the post-statement briefing given by a Labour spokesman (named by the Press Association, in a breach of convention, as Seumas Milne) that enraged several MPs. Milne noted that past information from the British intelligence agencies had proved “problematic” and confirmed that Corbyn was not currently blaming Russia (though he added that the Labour leader would have “no problem” with the UK’s expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats).
“I think obviously the government has access to information and intelligence on this matter which others don’t; however, also there’s a history in relation to WMD and intelligence which is problematic to put it mildly,” Milne told lobby journalists outside the House of Commons chamber.
“So I think the right approach is to seek the evidence; to follow international treaties, particularly in relation to prohibited chemical weapons, because this was a chemical weapons attack, carried out on British soil. There are procedures that need to be followed in relation to that.”
In response, Chuka Umunna tweeted: “Have read the comments of the Leader of the Opposition’s spokesperson. Mr Milne’s comments do not represent the views of the majority of our voters, members or MPs. We’ll get abuse for saying so but where British lives have been put at risk it is important to be clear about this.”
Another Labour MP, Anna Turley declared: “I’m afraid Seumas doesn’t speak for my Labour or British values.”
Sixteen Labour MPs have signed an Early Day Motion stating that “this House unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning of Yulia and Sergei Skripal”.
Corbyn is rare among Labour MPs in having voted against every major western intervention since he entered parliament (the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria) and in calling for the disbandment of Nato (which the Attlee government co-founded in 1949).
In Milne, he appointed someone who shared his worldview. Labour’s director of strategy and communications, who appeared on a panel with Vladimir Putin in 2014, wrote while a Guardian columnist that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was “clearly defensive” and that “western aggression and lawless killing is on another scale entirely from anything Russia appears to have contemplated, let alone carried out – removing any credible basis for the US and its allies to rail against Russian transgressions”.
In another Guardian column in 2015, Milne warned that, “Putin’s authoritarian conservatism may offer little for Russia’s future, but this anti-Russian incitement is dangerous folly.”
Corbyn and Milne will not be deterred by the criticism from long-standing internal opponents. They believe (with justification) that history has vindicated their opposition to the “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq. For them, there is no concern in standing outside the political consensus. Beyond the UK, the French government has taken a similar line. Spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said France was waiting for “definitive conclusions” and evidence that the “facts were completely true” before taking a position. Griveaux said: “We don’t do fantasy politics. Once the elements are proven, then the time will come for decisions to be made.”
As leader, Corbyn has nevertheless made compromises. He granted a free vote on Syria airstrikes in 2015 owing to shadow cabinet divisions (though the majority of Labour MPs and frontbenchers opposed intervention) and the 2017 Labour manifesto reaffirmed the party’s “commitment to Nato”.
Since the last general election, and Corbyn’s dramatic advance, MPs have accepted that he will remain leader for as long as he wishes and have largely refrained from criticism. But the Russian Question has fractured the fragile truce that has held since June 2017.