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Jeremy Corbyn's Russia stance has reopened Labour's wounds

The Labour leader's MPs rose to defy him and offer their support to Theresa May's position. 

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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.