Mrs May faces standing up to strongman Putin alone

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Picture Tass/PA Images

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Picture Tass/PA Images - Credit: Tass/PA Images

The problems continue to mount for the government – at times it must feel for Theresa May like these days will never pass.

Whatever you think of Brexit – whether you voted Leave or Remain – it is blindly obvious that much of the government's time and effort is being taken up trying to get the best deal.

Mrs May is under fire from all angles on how we leave the European Union: no-one is completely happy and there is a hard core on both sides who apparently are not willing to compromise.

She is a prime minister doomed to deliver the biggest fudge in history in an attempt to keep everyone at least partially onside. Her legacy is very difficult to envisage at this moment in time.

And now, like most serious problems, another bombshell has landed out of the clear blue sky.

The poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia raise some very tricky questions for the government – ones that must be met with strong leadership. Mrs May might be somewhat hamstrung on Brexit but she must act decisively on this issue.

Details remain sketchy and assumptions are often foolish – but what is clear is this was a targeted hit carried out by someone with a level of expertise. It seems unlikely this was an attack perpetrated by a local thug.

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So what can Mrs May and her top team do? The obvious answer is to kick out a handful of Russians who currently enjoy diplomatic cover. Expect this to be the first step. But don't expect Moscow to give two hoots.

Beyond that it is difficult to see what else the government can do in the immediacy: strong condemnation is hardly a weapon that is likely to send shivers down strongman Vladimir Putin's spine.

The real work needs to be done behind the scenes, but it won't be an easy task. London needs to build a coalition of nations also threatened by Russia. In recent weeks we have heard about suspected interference in democratic elections by the Russians across Europe. Their reach appears to be widespread.

Of course, in years gone by a quick call to Washington would have at least offered reassurance – no longer. Donald Trump is, for whatever reason, unwilling to speak out strongly against the Russian regime.

The reasons behind that reluctance will no doubt come out in time. But for now the old alliances cannot be relied upon.

What about our European friends? Well, understandably relations there are strained as well. And we must also remember that much of Europe relies heavily on Russian gas – if Putin flicks the switch he could plunge large areas of the continent in to chaos, including Germany.

Suddenly Blighty appears very alone in the world. And when the likes of Russia starts flexing its muscles, isolation is perhaps not the best position to be in.

So far though the government response has been good. The tone from home secretary Amber Rudd and the prime minister has been measured and thoughtful; that is important while the police and security services carry out their work and details remain scant.

The foreign secretary was the first to respond in parliament from the government. His tone – surprise, surprise – was less measured. But perhaps that is no bad thing. Even if Britain's options on what to actually do about the Russian threat are limited we should not be seen to roll over. Mr Johnson is known for his rumbustious style and outbursts – alongside the more diplomatic language of the prime minister this at least highlighted the fact the government was taking the poisoning very seriously.

So what might Mr Putin do next? And what is he trying to achieve? The Russian economy is hardly in rude health, foreign interventions and shows of strength mask that. But ultimately he hankers after even more power.

Right now Mrs May's power is questionable. But on this issue she needs to muster up the strength to lead, and she might have to do it alone.