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Sunday shows round-up: Boris accuses Russia of stockpiling Novichok

18 March 2018

4:29 PM

18 March 2018

4:29 PM

Vladimir Chizhov – Porton Down was a possible origin of the Salisbury attack

Once again, the shocking attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal is dominating the political landscape. In a statement on Wednesday, the Prime Minister declared in the House of Commons that there was ‘no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian State was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter’, and announced that 23 Russian diplomats were to be expelled from the United Kingdom. She also identified the nerve agent used in the attack as a ‘Novichok’. The Russian Ambassador to the EU joined Andrew Marr this morning to put forward his country’s case on the matter. Vladimir Chizhov’s suggestions have raised more than a few eyebrows:

AM: Can I be absolutely clear then – Russia has absolutely no stockpiles of any nerve agents whatever?

VC: Indeed. No stockpiles whatsoever.

AM: So then there is the question, how did this agent come to be used in Salisbury? It has been suggested for instance, that during the dissolution of the Soviet Union, some of this agent may have stolen or sold and ended up in the hands of criminal gangs or other state parties. What’s your view?

VC: Why don’t you ask yourself the question – how come the British authorities so quickly managed to designate the nerve agent used as ‘Novichok’?… When you have a nerve agent or whatever, you check it against certain samples that you retain in your laboratories. And Porton Down, as we now all know, is the largest military facility in the United Kingdom that has been dealing with chemical weapons research. And it’s actually only eight miles from Salisbury…

When Marr asked if Chizhov was implying that Porton Down is responsible for the attack, Chizhov replied ‘I don’t know’, but asserted that ‘there were certain specialists, including scientists who claim to have been responsible for creating nerve agent that have been whisked out of Russia, apparently residing in the United Kingdom’.

Boris Johnson – Russia has been stockpiling Novichok for a decade

The Foreign Secretary also appeared on the Marr Show, and declared that Vladimir Chizhov was being duplicitous over the Skripal affair, especially regarding his claims that Russia has completely ceased production of Novichok since the collapse of the USSR. Johnson described the ambassador’s remarks about Porton Down as ‘satirical’, and ‘not the response of a country that really believes itself to be innocent’:

BJ: I might just say in response to Mr Chizhov… We actually have evidence within the last ten years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purposes of assassination but has also been creating and stockpiling Novichok.

AM: So that was a direct lie that I was being given there?

BJ: But you will get that, and that is exactly the tactics that we have come to expect from Russia over the last few years…

AM: Are you absolutely sure it’s this mysterious thing called ‘Novichok’?

BJ: To the best of our knowledge this is a Russian made nerve agent that falls within the category ‘Novichok’ made only by Russia.

Of the international reaction to the attack, Johnson said that ‘Whether it’s in America, Germany, France… the Baltic countries and Poland, they’ve all experienced Russian meddling – malign, disruptive, Russian behaviour… They can see a country that is going in the wrong direction and that’s why they are so inclined now not to give Russia the benefit of the doubt and to stand shoulder to shoulder with the UK’.

Johnson also defended the Conservative party against the revelation that it had received a £160,000 donation from a former Russian minister’s wife at an auction, where the highest bidder had been awarded the chance to play tennis with him and David Cameron. Johnson replied that ‘To the best of my knowledge, all possible checks have been made and… will continue to be made’.

John McDonnell – Vladimir Putin is responsible for the attack

The Shadow Chancellor appeared on Peston on Sunday where he was asked for his reaction as to who bore culpability for the hospitalisation of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. In contrast to Jeremy Corbyn and his spokesman Seumas Milne, who had angered moderate Labour MPs by seeming unwilling to accept the security services’ conclusions, McDonnell opined there and then Vladimir Putin bore ultimate responsibility:

RP: Do you blame Putin for this attack?

JM: I agree completely with the Prime Minister. What’s she’s said is that Russia is culpable either by direct commission – i.e. Putin’s ordered this – or they’ve lost control of their supplies… [Putin] has to be responsible. Whichever way you look at it, he is responsible and all the evidence points to him.

RP: …What is more likely – that this was either ordered by Putin and a part of his machine, or that they simply lost control of this awful nerve agent and somehow the mafia or some other element got hold of it?

JM: …It’s important that we base this on the evidence, but there’s a pattern of people being murdered here, so therefore it leads you to the conclusion that Putin has questions to answer, because this is highly likely that this could have been a state execution. But what we don’t do in this country is we don’t leap to conclusions without the evidence… We have to be careful how we handle this if we’re going to be really effective in tackling Putin and the barbaric acts that his regime is undertaking.

Yvette Cooper – Russia ‘are effectively trolling us’

The Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee has also gone on the record with her criticism of the Russian government, telling Sarah Smith that it was ‘just implausible’ that the Russian state didn’t have its hands dirty:

SS: Do you have any doubt that what happened in Salisbury was directed by the Russian state?

YC: I share the conclusions of the French and German government as well as the British government that it is just implausible that the Russian state wasn’t involved in some way or another.

SS: So Jeremy Corbyn is wrong when he continues to equivocate and say it was either the Russian state or a chemical weapon that got out of control and into other people’s hands?

YC: Well, what we don’t know yet is which individuals caused the attack and how the nerve agent was distributed or how it was brought into the country. We also don’t know which bit of the Russian state was particularly involved, but I think… the way in which the Russian government has been behaving since this happened really is not the behaviour or a government that is saying ‘We weren’t involved and we want to help get to the bottom of this’. Just this morning the Russian embassy has been tweeting pictures of Hercules Poirot linked to this. They are effectively trolling us.

Hilary Benn – Article 50 deadline could be extended

In other news, the Brexit Select Committee chairman Hilary Benn has suggested that the government could ask for the Article 50 process to be extended if it finds that there are a great deal of sticking points that have yet to be resolved by the end of March 2019. Benn explained his reasoning to Smith:

HB: This is not about undermining the referendum result. It is about this problem that we face. There are 7 months to go until the Article 50 negotiations are due to end. There are a whole host of issues that haven’t yet been addressed. We haven’t started negotiating on our future economic relationship, what’s going to happen to trade, to services – 80 per cent of the British economy is services. How will we work together on defence, foreign policy and security – really important in the wake of the Salisbury attack – cooperating on aviation safety, food safety, medicines, research. And the crucial question of how to keep an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

SS: There’s a year to go though. Aren’t you setting a false deadline by saying this has to be sorted out by October?

HB: We haven’t set the deadline. Michel Barnier set the deadline at the start of the negotiating process because he pointed out that once the deal is agreed, it has to be ratified by the European Council, by the European Parliament and by the British Parliament. So what we are saying is if there are a whole load of things that have not yet been negotiated, then the government could ask for an extension of the Article 50 process.

Brandon Lewis – We have no record of Guido Fawkes’ spy

And finally, Robert Peston sought a reaction from Conservative party chairman Brandon Lewis after a report by the blogger Guido Fawkes, who claimed to have seen a Russian spy at a Tory function:

BL: I did see that piece on his website. I have to say we’ve looked back and we can’t see at any event a record of that person attending the event, but we are looking at it. But there are certainly no donations that come from anybody who is not a British citizen, and they’re all properly declared and abide by Electoral Commission laws.

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