It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Jeremy Corbyn, in a comment piece in the Guardian, continues to insist that Putin might not have been behind the Salisbury attack – when even his shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, says there is ‘prima facie evidence’ of the involvement of the Russian government. Labour backbenchers sign a motion pointedly calling for ‘unequivocal’ recognition of Russian government involvement – exactly what Corbyn has refused to give. And that is just the internal opposition from within the Labour party. Political commentators are scathing of his position, myself included. His attempt to use Wednesday’s statement by the Prime Minister as an opportunity to attack government cuts in the diplomatic service seems to mark a new low – and show that while he poses as a man of high principle, he is as much a political opportunist as the rest of them.
Surely, surely Corbyn is going to be damaged by all this. But don’t count on it. I have a growing feeling that we might find out next week that his approval ratings have actually grown. However badly his response to the Salisbury attack has gone down in Westminster I sense that in the wider world there are a lot of people who rather sympathise with Corbyn – and not all on the left, either. They are minded not to trust government intelligence, following failures over Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. But more to the point they don’t really care. They see the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter as an argument among Russians, even if it did take place on British soil. And didn’t Mr Skripal betray his country, they ask? We wouldn’t like that, either – even if we didn’t go as far as to bump off the likes of Kim Philby. It certainly isn’t worth risking a new Cold War over.
While many of us will disagree with these arguments – it really is a big deal when a foreign power starts trying to assassinate its enemies on our soil – they are not so very unreasonable that they are going to unite the country against the people making them. There is always a sizeable proportion of the population who favour the ‘do nothing’ option when it comes to the misdeeds of foreign leaders – be it Saddam, Assad, Gaddafi, Milosevic. It is all a bit of a fuss. Why not let it die down and live a quiet life? Let’s keep our noses out other people’s affairs.
Right at the moment Corbyn is the only person speaking for the very significant group of the population who think this way. Moreover, the more that people sense he is being bullied, the more popular he seems to become. The usual rules of politics do not seem to apply to him – the more he divides his party, the bigger a shambles he seems to create on the front bench, the more that people seem to sympathise with him. His visible vulnerability seems to tempt out the love of the underdog.
That is why, while we will hear many more politicians and commentators attacking him over the weekend, I have a suspicion that Corbyn will come out personally stronger for all this. His opponents should be very careful how they handle him.