Jeremy Corbyn warned Prime Minister Theresa May against sparking a new cold war after she expelled 23 Russian diplomats and unveiled a raft of other measures against Vladimir Putin’s government over the poisoning of a former spy in southern England.
May has blamed the Russian state for the attack with a Soviet-developed nerve agent that left Sergei Skripal and his daughter in a critical state in hospital. But writing in the Guardian on Friday, Corbyn said “a connection to Russian mafia-like groups that have been allowed to gain a toehold in Britain cannot be excluded.”
“To rush way ahead of the evidence being gathered by the police, in a fevered parliamentary atmosphere, serves neither justice nor our national security,” Corbyn wrote. While he said “Russian authorities must be held to account on the basis of the evidence,” he added “that does not mean we should resign ourselves to a new cold war of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent.”
Corbyn’s latest intervention risks widening a rift with backbenchers in his own party. His vacillation over whether to blame the Russian president for the attack has led to divisions with moderates who back May’s stance. It also puts him at odds with the leaders of the U.S., Germany and France, who issued a joint statement on Thursday with May saying there’s “no plausible alternative explanation” to Russian responsibility for the attack in Salisbury.
Labour lawmaker and Corbyn critic John Woodcock tabled a motion in Parliament stating that the House of Commons “unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability” in the attack and “fully supports” the government’s approach: so far another 21 Labour lawmakers have backed it.
Late Thursday, Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer also endorsed the premier’s measures.
“It is very important that we support the action that the prime minister laid out on Wednesday as a response to this unprovoked attack,” he told BBC television’s “Question Time” show.
Starmer, who as a lawyer represented Marina Litvinenko in a case against Russia after her husband, Alexander Litvinenko, was poisoned with Polonium on British soil more than a decade ago, called the poisoning of the Skripals “an attack on our sovereignty, on our rule of law, and not for the first time.”
Corbyn’s interventions that followed May’s statements on the attack in Parliament on Monday and Wednesday were both met with disapproval by lawmakers, including some from within Labour. That was exacerbated Wednesday when his spokesman pointed to past U.K. intelligence mistakes — a view he supported in the Guardian.
“In my years in Parliament I have seen clear thinking in an international crisis overwhelmed by emotion and hasty judgments too many times,” Corbyn wrote, citing the Iraq invasion, parliamentary support for attacking Libya, and the war in Afghanistan.
“I’d be deeply uncomfortable about the security of the U.K. if Jeremy Corbyn became prime minister,” Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said on “Question Time.”
Corbyn, for his part, called for May to target “ill-gotten cash that Russian oligarchs – both allied with and opposed to the Russian government – have laundered through London over the past two decades.”
“Measures to tackle the oligarchs and their loot would have a far greater impact on Russia’s elite than limited tit-for-tat expulsions,” he wrote. That put in him rare agreement with Jacob Rees-Mogg, a darling of the grassroots in May’s Conservative Party, who told the House magazine Thursday that “expelling a few diplomats isn’t enough.”
“‘It needs to be tougher action than that: we need to look at hitting Russia financially,” Rees-Mogg said. “The Russians have a lot of assets in London and some of the Russians with assets are linked to Putin. If you can establish a trail and show it is his money, then you should go after that and freeze his assets.”