Will Corbyn’s meeting with a Czechoslovakian spy impact Labour’s election chances?

If they thought voters would buy “Jeremy the spy”, they’d be less worried about whether voters were buying “Jeremy the Prime Minister”.


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How much longer can the Czechoslovakian spy story have left to run? We’ve entered Day Five now, and it looks as though it may be dragged out for considerably longer yet.

The original story, which no-one disputes, is that Jeremy Corbyn met with a Czech intelligence officer Jan Sarkocy, here in the UK, under diplomatic cover. He was given a codename – Cob – but the conversations between Corbyn and Sarkocy yielded nothing that was not common knowledge. (Corbyn disliked the American government and Margaret Thatcher, and was uneasy about the powers given to the security services.)

But now Sarkocy is claiming that he paid Corbyn for information and had “at least” 15 other Labour MPs on his payroll.

It is true that agents of the Soviet Union and its satellites targeted MPs throughout Western Europe – particularly those MPs on the left-wing of the major social democratic parties – for intelligence work. It's also true that – spoiler alert – Corbyn opposed much of what the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were doing, both at home and overseas.

But Sarkocy has also claimed that, thanks to Corbyn, he knew what Thatcher ate for “breakfast, lunch and dinner, and what clothes she would wear the next day”, which, unless the answer was “food”, feels unlikely, to put it mildly. He has also taken responsibility for Live Aid, “revealing” it was funded by the Czechoslovakian intelligence services. His claims and his character have been dismissed by Czech PM Andrej Babiš and by Czech intelligence services.

But there is enough around, rather than in, the story – the historical facts of how Eastern Bloc intelligence operates Corbyn's general political sympathies at the time, his divergence from foreign policy orthodoxies, etc. – to ensure that it will run and run. 

Will it matter? I'm inclined to agree with the (generally Corbyn-friendly) trade unionist who told me yesterday that if they thought voters would buy “Jeremy the spy”, they'd be less worried about whether voters were buying “Jeremy the Prime Minister”. The accusation is so far from the weaknesses of the Labour brand – soft touch, can't get its act together – that I can't see how it will land in the minds of voters, as I wrote when the story started.

However, it is a reminder that Labour's rebuttal operation is still less effective than the party may wish. A more Labour-friendly version of events is being heard on the more left-friendly websites, while the Labour leadership puts a lot of faith in the hope that by the time of the next election, the right-wing press will have continued to decline in relevance. But here's the thing: it feels unlikely that the right-wing papers' influence over two of the media channels that actually shape elections – the BBC and commercial radio giant Global, whose news breaks across Classic FM, Capital FM, Jazz FM, Yougetthepoint FM, are far more important than anything any newspaper or website does or say – will have waned. Labour can't be certain that Facebook will still be its friend come 2022, either.

Of course, these attacks on Labour are a historical story based on the word of an eccentric former spy and probably won't matter. But if the Conservatives can recover the art of targeting the Opposition's areas of actual vulnerability, it could matter a great deal.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.