Front Bench: If Jeremy Corbyn thought he could politicise the Salisbury poisoning, he has miscalculated

Daniel Capurro
Corbyn looking angry

Today's Front Bench focuses on Jeremy Corbyn's response to the Salisbury poisoning.  A sample of the email is below. If you like what you see, sign up here. Don't forget to vote in the poll and leave your reasoning in the comments below. The best responses will feature in this afternoon's Brexit Briefing.

Front Bench

The West lined up behind Britain yesterday, with the United States, France, and Germany signing a joint statement with the UK declaring that there was “no plausible alternative explanation” for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal other than that it was the work of the Kremlin, while the US also immediately imposed its own sanctions in retaliation for Russian cyberattacks and election meddling.

Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, again refused to accept the Prime Minister’s version of events, writing in The Guardianthat “a connection to Russian mafia-like groups … cannot be excluded.”

A united face

The backing from allies will be extremely welcome in Downing Street as it bolsters the UK’s efforts to make this an issue of global security and norms. Much is being made of the nerve agent used and the fact that such a chemical attack has not taken place in Europe since the Second World War.

The decision by the US to impose its own sanctions – aimed at 19 individuals and several organisations – will be seen as particularly significant. While they are not strictly in relation to the Skripal case, an American willingness to hit back is crucial if Britain wants any future measures to be international in scope.

A political calculation...

Amid all this, we have the spectacle of Corbyn standing defiant in his refusal to take the Government’s assurances at face value. As Front Bench discussed yesterday, Corbyn’s stance is far from popular with his own MPs.

And last night we had the spectacle of the Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, staunchly backing Theresa May on Question Time. Until now, Starmer, who is no Corbynista, has been loyal to a tee. He joins the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, (another loyalist) and the Shadow Defence Secretary, Nia Griffith, in backing May over Corbyn on Russia.

This all raises the question of why Corbyn has chosen to politicise this event and double down even when his party has turned on him.

No doubt there is a significant element of the Labour leader’s genuine political beliefs in this, but don’t forget that Corbyn has politicised the unpoliticisable before. He turned the London Bridge and Manchester terror attacks into a question of police cuts, and the Grenfell fire into one of local authority funding. Every time it worked out well for him and cost the Tories politically.

So there may well be a line of thought in the Leader of the Opposition’s office that this time will be the same. The evidence would suggest otherwise.

Or miscalculation?

As in the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster, May has visited the scene after significant anger at the authorities – this time at Public Health England for its handling of the risk to the public. Yet whereas in West London she looked a broken and enfeebled PM, yesterday in Salisbury she was greeted with a fist bump and smiles. Of course, the circumstance are quite different, but this could still have been a chastening experience for May. Polling appears to bear this out too.

A new YouGov poll for The Times, conducted on Wednesday and Thursday, put the Tories on 42 per cent, three points ahead of Labour and up one point. 53 per cent of the respondents also said that May had responded well to the Skripal incident, compared to 23 per cent who said she had done badly. That compared to only 18 per cent who said Corbyn had done well and 39 per cent who thought he had done badly.

Crises of this kind offer political opportunity to the opposition only if the Government mishandles them. By trying to force that impression, Corbyn looks to have miscalculated and torn open the delicate unity of his party in the process.

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