Has Corbyn misjudged public mood on spy poisoning?

PUBLISHED: 10:50 16 March 2018 | UPDATED: 10:50 16 March 2018

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture PA.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

Less than a year ago very few people believed Jeremy Corbyn had a shot at becoming prime minister.

The thinking was the Labour Party had been infiltrated by a mass of new left-wing members and the electorate would never vote for him.

And besides that, it seemed Mr Corbyn was more interested in revolutionising his own party rather than actual power. Then the general election was called.

Partly because he led an impressive campaign and partly because the Conservatives didn’t, people voted Labour. Not enough people of course but certainly many more than even the pollsters predicted.

And suddenly, almost overnight in fact, Mr Corbyn was transformed. The suits were sharper, the prose polished and the performances at the dispatch box improved.

GQ even deemed the Labour leader worthy of their front cover – and he looked the part. When he was asked “Do you think you’ll be prime minister?” he even had the confidence to reply not only that he would but that he’d be moving in to Number 10 in the next 12 months. Perhaps he was over reaching there. At times since the election there is no doubt that Mr Corbyn has had the Tories on the ropes. On the NHS, austerity and policing, Labour had the upper hand.

And many of the non-believers in the Labour ranks had to eat their words and start playing ball with their leader. The majority of Labour’s MPs thought Mr Corbyn would fail at the ballot box, they were wrong.

There remained doubts around his plan for how Britain should leave the European Union but under the stewardship of Sir Keir Starmer the party began to move in a coherent direction on that topic as well.

And even though some national newspapers continued to dig dirt and throw muck at him, nothing seemed to stick to Mr Corbyn. He had found a political sweet spot.

But he has misjudged his response to the Russian spy poisoning scandal.

Last week after the prime minister made her first statement on the attack that has left Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia fighting for their lives, Mr Corbyn used his response in the Commons to highlight Tory donations by Russians. Clumsy.

And after Theresa May updated the nation again on Wednesday he failed to fully back the placing of sanctions on Russia. His backbenchers were furious.

A group of Labour MPs immediately tabled a motion backing the government and even members of his own front bench voiced their support for Mrs May. Others attacked Mr Corbyn’s senior aide Seumas Milne who had said “there is a history in relation to weapons of mass destruction and intelligence which is problematic, to put it mildly”.

MP Anna Turley said “I’m afraid Seumas doesn’t speak for my Labour or British values” while Chuka Umunna added “Mr Milne’s comments do not represent the views of the majority of our voters, members or MPs”.

Mr Corbyn and his spokesman have got the mood wrong on Russia. He has opened himself up to criticisms he did not need to. All the questions he posed need to be asked but a stronger response was needed. He has opened up battle lines within his own party that he did not need to and undoubtedly annoyed some of those people who voted for him last June.

And this was all of his own doing. If Mr Corbyn is serious about wanting to be prime minister he needs to judge the political mood better. On this issue he has handed his opponents a golden opportunity to attack him.

Does he care? Probably not. In the past Mr Corbyn and his team have simply ignored attacks like these. But this feels different, this is a matter of national security.

France, Germany and the United States have joined with the UK in denouncing the attack.

Mr Corbyn has spent all his political life opposing the Conservatives but on this issue he may regret not backing the government.

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