It’s not every day you find yourself thinking that, well, Jeremy Corbyn has a point, but that’s just how I felt when he wrote in yesterday’s Guardian and reiterated later that the Government was ‘rushing way ahead of the evidence’ in condemning Russia for the attack on Sergei Skripal. Yesterday he observed that ‘this horrific event demands..painstaking criminal investigation…to rush way ahead of the evidence being gathered by the police in a fevered parliamentary atmosphere, serves neither justice nor our national security.’ I don’t think he was being treasonous in suggesting that Russia should have been given more time to respond, and possibly a sample of the toxin to analyse. He didn’t say the Government was wrong; he simply said it was precipitate.
It’s difficult, in fact, to gainsay his analysis, that ‘either this was a crime authored by the Russian state; or that state has allowed these deadly toxins to slip out of the control it has an obligation to exercise. If the latter, a connection to Russian mafia-like groups…cannot be excluded’. Well, quite so. And if, as the Daily Telegraph reports today, the nerve agent was given to Yulia Skripal on a visit to Moscow – a nice present in a box for her father, perhaps – then the best chance of establishing who was to blame is if this poor woman does not die but survives, to tell the police who she met with, who had access to her belongings, who gave her stuff before she returned.
Of course I think that the Government has a duty of care towards its agents, especially those like Sergei Skripal, who were double agents. For one thing, if you don’t look after them, you won’t continue to recruit them. It’s also the case that the Russian government had the maximum access to the nerve toxin used to try to kill Mr Skripal, though security at chemical weapons sites appears to have been hair-raisingly negligent – culpably negligent.
But really, in this as in so much else the question is, cui bono? Who gains from this blatant attempted murder? It’s by no means certain that the Russian state gains a great deal. The probable result of attempted murder of a British agent on British soil (even if the toxin was transported from Moscow) was exactly what has happened: the expulsion of Russian diplomats, ratcheting up of sanctions and a general sense that Russia’s in the global dog house. I don’t think that’s a gain in the Russian elections; it’ll probably be discounted, but it’s not particularly an electoral asset. The argument that cuts most ice in favour of Russian involvement is that this would send a message to other would-be spies that defecting to the UK isn’t good for your health – but killing a man who has been traded years ago in an orderly exchange of agents is a breach of the rules that doesn’t make much sense.
Those who do stand to benefit from this attempted murder are opponents of the Russian regime; either organised criminals, Mr Corbyn’s ‘Russia mafia-style groups’ or other states – I dunno, maybe Ukraine? – which gain rather than lose if the Putin regime is even further discredited. If it were indeed a hostile state that carried out this attack, then it has worked better than they could ever have imagined. If it was the Putin regime, then a clumsy, terrifying murder bid has had precisely the predictable effect.
Either way, I can’t help thinking that Jeremy Corbyn cuts a more convincing figure in this awful affair than either Mrs May or poor Gavin Williamson who told the Russians they should ‘just shut up’. Show how it’s done, Gavin; show how it’s done.