Jeremy Corbyn Has Doubts About Russia’s Link to Ex-Spy Poisoning

Updated on
U.K. To Expel 23 Russian Diplomats for Spy Poisoning

Jeremy Corbyn’s Russia problem just got worse.

Long at the far left of British politics, the opposition leader misjudged the mood of lawmakers -- including from his own Labour Party -- by casting doubt on Russian government involvement in the poisoning of a former spy on U.K. soil.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May listed a slew of measures the U.K. will take against Russia for the attack more than a week ago in western England, including the expulsion of 23 diplomats. Sergei Skripal and his daughter, she said, were poisoned by a nerve agent developed by Russia.

Corbyn then stood up to “echo” her words of support for emergency services -- but noticeably failed to back her condemnation of Russia. He suggested nothing was yet proven, and asked May if it was possible that Russia lost control of the nerve agent rather than deploying it itself. His request to know how she responded to a Russian demand for a sample so they could carry out their own tests sparked howls of disapproval from lawmakers.

Corbyn’s spokesman later told reporters that his record on international crises is bettered by no lawmaker in Parliament. He said the U.K. has a history of intelligence mistakes, including on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and called for the government to act only on the basis of evidence -- pointing out that Corbyn had also received security briefings.

May was still taking lawmakers’ questions when she was asked about that statement. “Wrong and outrageous,” she called it.

Political Leanings

While Corbyn did say a “robust dialogue” was needed with Russia, his stance sits uneasily with his past left-wing activities, and comes just weeks after the papers were filled with reports -- denied by the Labour leader -- that he fed intelligence to a Czech agent in the 1980s.

Corbyn had similarly misjudged the mood on Monday when May first pointed the finger at Russia, giving President Vladimir Putin 24 hours to explain how the nerve agent came to be used in Britain. The Labour leader chose to direct his ire at May’s Conservative Party, who he said accepted more than 800,000 pounds ($1.1 million) in donations from Russian oligarchs.

On Wednesday, it was left to Yvette Cooper -- beaten to the Labour leadership by Corbyn in 2015 and now chairwoman of Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee -- to speak for moderate Labour lawmakers.

The prime minister’s “conclusion about the culpability of the Russian state is an immensely serious one, and that, in addition to their breaches of international law, the use of chemical weapons, but also their continued disregard for the rule of the law and for human rights must be met with unequivocal condemnation,” Cooper said, to near universal approval.

— With assistance by Jess Shankleman

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.