Jeremy Corbyn has sparked a furious row in the Labour party after he pointedly refused to condemn Russia for the attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
Theresa May had informed MPs there had been no credible explanation for the attack in Salisbury and reiterated the government’s position that Russia was responsible. She described Moscow’s response as one of “sarcasm, contempt and defiance”.
As a result she vowed to expel 23 Russian diplomats operating as undeclared spies, freeze assets and tighten British law in response to the Russian state’s “attempted murder” of the Skripals. She also confirmed a partial boycott of the World Cup, meaning no ministers or members of the Royal Family will attend this summer’s games.
Russia's foreign ministry responded last night, saying May was punishing the state under a "false pretext".
The statement added: "Needless to say, our response measures will not be long in coming."
But while Corbyn criticised the attack, he stopped short of blaming the Russian state. Instead he queried whether the UK had met its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention in allowing Russia access to a sample of the nerve agent – parroting comments made by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday, which had already been dismissed by Downing Street.
Appearing to dismiss an intelligence briefing he had received just hours earlier, Corbyn told MPs any response must be “based on clear evidence”.
May welcomed the “overwhelming consensus” in the House of Commons but said: “I am only sorry that the consensus does not go as far as the Right Honourable Gentleman, who could have taken the opportunity as the UK government has done to condemn the culpability of Russia.”
Last night members of the United Nations Security Council lined up to condemn Russia and offer their full support for the British position. The US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said “this is a defining moment…the credibility of this council will not survive if we fail to hold Russia to account.”
During parliament’s two-hour debate, numerous Labour backbenchers distanced themselves from Corbyn.
Talking to journalists after the Commons exchange, Corbyn’s spokesman held firm. “Clearly whoever carried out the attack is responsible for what was a completely heinous and reckless act,” he said, arguing that the agent could have fallen into a third party’s hands.
He added there was a “history in relation to weapons of mass destruction and intelligence that is problematic, to put it mildly”.
Labour MPs were so outraged that many, including Chuka Umunna, Stella Creasy, Alison McGovern and Ruth Smeeth, signed an early day motion tabled by John Woodcock stating they “unequivocally accept the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning of Yulia and Sergei Skripal.”
And there were rumours that at least one member of the shadow cabinet was considering resigning over the matter.
One Labour MP told City A.M.: “I’m horrified at the rambling conspiracy theories coming from the spokesman Seumas Milne, whose views bring shame on the great values this party represents.” They added: “You cannot seek to be British PM and have such an appallingly weak and nonchalant response to a chemical attack by another state on British soil.”