What is Labour’s position on the government’s response to the Salisbury attack? There seem to be at least three. If you listen to Jeremy Corbyn, it’s that there needs to be definitive evidence and that Britain needs to maintain a dialogue with Russia. If you listen to his backbenchers, it’s that Labour should wholeheartedly support Theresa May’s position, both on Russian culpability and on the government’s response. But if you listen to his spokesman, it’s that there is a ‘problematic’ history of UK intelligence on chemical weapons and that there was not yet proof that the Russian state had carried out the attack.
It turns out that a large number of Labour frontbenchers take the second position, somewhat surprisingly. Emily Thornberry, who was shouting ‘shame on you!’ at Theresa May during the Commons statement yesterday, last night clarified that she believed there was ‘prima facie evidence’ for Russian involvement, which is quite a break from someone who tends to back Corbyn up on most things.
Someone who tends to try to hold the old party line on things is Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith, who has an extraordinary track record of very politely saying exactly the opposite to her leader while keeping her job. She was interviewed on the Today programme this morning and insisted that Labour does ‘very much accept’ what May had said, and that ‘we are fully supporting the measures which the government is taking’.
She was then asked why Corbyn’s spokesman had made his comments:
‘Well I was not present at those interviews by that spokesperson but I think the situation is very different when we have two people, attempted murder of two people, plus a police officer very seriously ill and clearly other lives endangered.
‘We have very clear evidence and I think that is what we need to be talking about now, we need to be looking at this particular situation and as I say I think we do have some very very fine intelligence services and we have great expertise on some of these matters and it’s absolutely vital of course that we don’t see any hollowing out of that expertise and that we maintain all of the different types of expertise because one thing we know about Russia is that they can be very unpredictable and they may choose very different means in any future action.’
Asked again why the spokesman had briefed journalists that there was a ‘problematic’ history of intelligence on chemical weapons, Griffith said:
‘As I say I wasn’t there and I can’t speak for Seumas Milne the spokesperson, he has to speak for himself.’
It’s not conventional to name the spokesman, incidentally, as they speak on behalf of a politician and not for themselves. But Griffith identified Milne, and his comments did go further than the ones Corbyn made in the Chamber. His role in Labour’s policy on Russia is now a key part of the story – and it is clear that frontbenchers as well as backbench MPs are deeply uncomfortable with that role.
What happens now? If Corbyn only has a tiny group of allies in his Cabinet, let alone his party, then he could modify his position and distance himself from his own spokesman, which is highly unlikely given Milne’s important strategic role. He could admonish his frontbenchers, which would create a row in and of itself and keep the attention on the Labour Party rather than on the government’s response. Or he could do nothing and hope the row goes away. This is also unlikely: given the Salisbury attack was always going to provoke a tit-for-tat between Britain and Russia, there are likely to be many more Commons statements on relations between the two countries that the Labour leader is going to need to respond to.