It’s fair to say that the Conservatives’ attempts to use the allegations about Jeremy Corbyn’s links with a Czechoslovakian spy have had mixed results. The high point came when Theresa May managed to produce a joke about blank cheques and Czechs at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, and everything else has been competing to be the low point, from Steve Baker’s deeply awful interview on the Daily Politics, to Ben Bradley receiving a letter from Corbyn’s lawyers.
Perhaps there could have been a slightly less ham-fisted way of engaging with the story. Or perhaps it would be better for the Tory party’s dignity, if nothing else, if it left these claims well alone.
It’s not just that the story itself doesn’t really add up, beyond the fact that Corbyn did meet Jan Sarkocy, but also that trying to stir it up further does real long-term damage that lasts far beyond a handful of Conservative MPs looking desperately overexcited. This long-term damage comes about as a result of trying to use every story about Corbyn’s foreign policy, no matter how ludicrous it might seem. With each ludicrous story, the Labour leader is able to claim more credibly that all stories involving his stance on international issues are just ‘smears’. And that allows him to dodge scrutiny of matters that are of genuine concern, such as how he would regard Nato, for instance, if he became Prime Minister, or whether any of the countries he admires and sees as allies are actually democracies, let alone Britain’s existing allies.
The Tories have already made this much harder by bleating repeatedly about the IRA during the 2017 election campaign. It was almost as though Corbyn couldn’t talk about anything, whether welfare policy or public spending, without one Conservative or another popping up to talk about the IRA. This firstly trivialised what the IRA had done during the Troubles, suggesting that it was merely a matter to be kicked around like a political football, and secondly made the Conservatives look as though they were trying to use ad hominem attacks to avoid scrutiny.
If they really want people to understand the extent of the change in Britain’s foreign policy that a Corbyn government would introduce, then the Tories really need to change the way they talk about his foreign policy – and run a mile away from this spy story.