Theresa May did not hold back in her Commons statement on the Salisbury spy attack, warning Russia it has until midnight tonight to explain why a Russian nerve agent was used in the incident. The Sun praises her reaction as ‘admirably tough’. But there is criticism for the Labour leader: ‘Never has the gulf between her and Jeremy Corbyn seemed wider’, according to the Sun. While Theresa May was right to rebuke Russia and ‘trust (that) the civilised world will unite behind us’, Corbyn misjudged the mood ‘hideously’. Instead, the Labour leader chose this ‘sombre national moment to advance Labour’s interests’. He started by ranting about ‘Russians “funding the Tory Party”’ and then moved on to ‘waffle (about) police and NHS staffing’. ‘Never has Corbyn sunk lower,’ the paper concludes. ‘Thank heavens we have a PM who gets how grave’ the incident in Salisbury was. After all, if Corbyn was in charge, the ‘old fool’ would ‘invite Putin in for a cuppa’.
However Russia does react to Theresa May’s statement, ‘Britain needs to be ready with a range of responses with immediate, targeted and guaranteed effect’, says the Times. After all, whoever was responsible for the incident in Salisbury acted in part because ‘they perceive Britain itself as a soft target’. Make no mistake, says the Times: ‘This is the lowest point to which relations between the two countries have sunk in more than a decade’. But Britain is not alone in finding itself targeted by Russia. As the PM pointed out, Russia is also accused of meddling in foreign elections as well as annexing Crimea. This makes it vital that Britain does not act independently in response to Putin. ‘The ideal response’, says the Times ‘will therefore involve a high level of co-ordination and solidarity between the western allies’. Parliament should start by pushing through the ‘Magnitsky amendment to the criminal finances bill’; the government should also boot out any diplomats who might have known in advance about the attempted murder, says the Times. It might well turn out that whoever was responsible for the attack ‘may ultimately be linked not to the Kremlin but to freelancers operating on its behalf or security chiefs’. This makes it all the more obvious that ‘targeted sanctions are the answer’, concludes the Times.
The Daily Telegraph agrees with the Times’ analysis, saying that the robust response from the PM makes it vital the government has thought about its reaction ‘when the Kremlin rebuts the accusations levelled against it’. One option would be ‘preparing the ground to invoke Article 5 of the Nato treaty’; ‘Britain clearly needs the backing of other countries’, says the Telegraph, making this option an attractive choice for dealing with Russia. The government will also need to go further than it did in response to the Litvinenko assassination, when four diplomats were removed from Britain. This time, ‘the Government will need to expel the Russian ambassador and many of his staff at the very least’. A boycott of the World Cup in Russia would also dent Putin’s ‘vanity project’. ‘But can the UK convince other participants to join in?’. After all, if England alone stays away it would make Britain ’look isolated and unable to rely upon the support of other Nato members’. Theresa May must act wisely, but there is little doubt that Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘partisan and pusillanimous’ response makes it harder to ‘galvanise international support’.
On 18 April, join Andrew Neil and a special guest panel for an in-depth discussion about Russia’s people, politics, economy and how the West should deal with the newly re-elected Vladimir Putin. Book tickets here