The Tories’ great worry after the last election was that they had effectively vaccinated the electorate against Jeremy Corbyn. They feared that the next time they tried to show that he was extreme, weak on national security and too friendly with the West’s enemies, voters would yawn and declare that they had heard it all before. They would be immune to any attacks on the Labour leader. Compounding this worry was the fear that Corbyn would present himself, as he had quite successfully during the general election campaign, as a more mainstream figure than he really is.
If Corbyn had followed this ‘kindly grandad’ approach, the Conservatives would be in deep trouble right now. Labour’s moderates would also lack any obvious cause for complaint. Every government mistake, such as the appalling treatment of the Windrush generation immigrants, could be used by Labour to chip away at Theresa May and the Tories’ credibility. The old saw about governments losing elections rather than oppositions winning them would apply.
But Corbyn can’t give up, or even hide, the anti-western worldview that has motivated his entire political career. Which is why the past few weeks have been so damaging for him. After the Skripals had been poisoned in Salisbury, but before Theresa May had formally pointed the finger of blame at Russia, shadow chancellor John McDonnell suggested that Labour MPs should stop appearing on Russia Today. This was a sensible response to the station’s desperate attempts to divert blame away from Moscow. It would have put much-needed distance between Labour and a TV channel that Corbyn and his allies had been all too willing to appear on in the past.
Given that it was McDonnell who ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign, you’d have thought that the Labour leader would have taken this advice on board. But his office instead felt the need to stress that Labour would not boycott the channel. It is hard to see what political purpose this served.
Corbyn’s problems deepened once May accused the Russian government of responsibility for the attack. Despite mounting evidence, he refused to accept this analysis and appeared to be looking around for any alternative explanation, suggesting that ‘a connection to Russian mafia-like groups that have been allowed to gain a toehold in Britain cannot be excluded’.
Even now, Corbyn can’t bring himself to blame Moscow for the attack. He talks of how he still hasn’t seen ‘incontrovertible evidence’. Again, he won’t endorse McDonnell’s line that the poisoning of the Skripals was a ‘state-sponsored assassination attempt’. Instead, he prefers the line that ‘assertions and probabilities are not the same as certainty’.
Corbyn is being wilfully blind to the fact that the Salisbury attack was designed to leave a scintilla of doubt about who was responsible. Vladimir Putin has form on this: the Russian forces that went into Ukraine didn’t declare their presence there. Putin also lies as a tactic (as Owen Matthews detailed in these pages last month). In March 2014, he denied that any Russian soldiers were in Crimea. Just a month later, he was lauding them for their role in its annexation. For two years he denied that Russian troops were in Eastern Ukraine, before admitting that they were. Despite this record, Corbyn is still happy to amplify doubts about Moscow’s involvement in Salisbury, making it easier for Russia to deny responsibility.
During the general election, the Tories couldn’t quite explain why Corbyn was so profoundly wrong on national security. Their arguments often required more knowledge of 1980s politics or the Middle East than most voters possess. But the Labour leader’s response to Salisbury has provided a shorthand that spells out the problem. Only 16 per cent of voters believe that he would respond best to a Russian attack on British soil. According to YouGov, his personal ratings have fallen by 33 points since December.
The air strikes on Syria have also exposed more of Corbyn’s worldview. The public are weary of foreign entanglements, and of interventions in the Middle East in particular. His stance on Syria is therefore unlikely to be as damaging as Salisbury. But it is still revealing how — and why — he is opposing the strikes.
Personally, I think bombing Assad’s chemical weapons facilities is reasonable. The Syrian civil war is awful enough without it persuading every despotic regime that it can use such weapons on its own people and suffer no consequences. But there are, as even senior government figures acknowledge, ‘good arguments against the strikes’.
Corbyn, however, wants to indulge in sophistry. He keeps claiming that if Mrs May tried harder, the diplomatic route could work. But this ignores the fact that Russia will veto any UN security council resolution that would harm its client regime in Damascus. He also wants to argue that the only legal basis for military action is either self-defence or a UN security council resolution.
This doctrine would significantly increase Russia’s world influence, allowing it to veto any humanitarian intervention anywhere. Every dictator would know that if they allied themselves with Moscow, they could butcher their own people with impunity. (It is, however, worth noting that Corbyn can’t even bring himself to blame the Assad regime for the attacks in Douma.)
Many on the Labour side know the implications of what their leader is proposing. It was the last Labour government that used humanitarian intervention as the legal basis for action in Kosovo because it knew that the Russians would veto any security council resolution authorising the use of force.
Watching the Syria debate in the Commons this week, one is again left wondering how Labour MPs who so profoundly dis-agree with Corbyn on questions of war and peace can campaign to make him prime minister at the next general election.
It would be a brave and foolish man who made predictions about a general election that is still four years away. But what is clear is that Corbyn is not going to take the path of least resistance to Downing Street. Instead, he aims to win with his own anti–western foreign policy views front and centre.
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