Jeremy Corbyn was accused of “appeasement” towards Russia as MPs – including his own backbenchers – voiced anger at the Labour leader’s apparent reluctance to directly blame Moscow for the Salisbury nerve agent attack.
Mr Corbyn was heckled in the House of Commons on Wednesday as he responded to the Prime Minister’s statement setting out a range of retaliatory measures the UK will take against Russia.
The Labour leader described the Salisbury attack as an “appalling act of violence”, but urged the Government to ensure its response is “decisive, proportionate and based on clear evidence”.
Mr Corbyn also called on Theresa May to maintain “robust dialogue” with Russia, despite her announcement that high-level bilateral contacts are to be suspended.
The Labour leader was then barracked by Tory MPs for his suggestion the UK’s diplomatic capacity has been reduced as a result of cuts.
The PM said: “This is not a question of our diplomacy, of what diplomatic support we have around the world.
“This is the question of the culpability of the Russian state for an act on our soil.”
Mrs May went on to criticise Mr Corbyn’s response to her statement, claiming he “could have taken the opportunity – as the UK Government has done – to condemn the culpability of the Russian state”.
A number of high-profile Labour backbenchers then voiced their own disapproval with their party leader’s comments.
“Can I assure the Prime Minister that most of us on these benches fully support the action she is taking,” said former Labour cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw.
Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was cheered by MPs on all sides of the chamber when she said Russia’s actions should be met with “unequivocal condemnation”.
The PM, in her response, thanked Ms Cooper for the tone of her comments and acknowledged they were “representative of many” on the Labour benches.
Have read the comments of the Leader of the Opposition’s spokesperson. Mr Milne’s comments do not represent the views of the majority of our voters, members or MPs. We’ll get abuse for saying so but where British lives have been put at risk it is important to be clear about this.
— Chuka Umunna (@ChukaUmunna) March 14, 2018
Further criticism came from the DUP’s Sammy Wilson. He said: “We welcome the decisive action that has been taken by the Prime Minister today and it sits in contrast with the policy of appeasement that we have heard from the frontbench of the Labour Party.”
In a briefing with journalists after Mrs May’s statement, a Labour spokesman said: “Jeremy has condemned the attack in unequivocal terms.”
When asked whether Mr Corbyn accepted Russia was responsible, the spokesman added: “We accept the two alternatives that the Prime Minister set out on Monday – that Russia was responsible or lost control of a military-grade nerve agent.
“Based on the statement today the Prime Minister continues to leave open both those possibilities.
“It is important to follow the evidence and be guided by that evidence. The right approach is to seek evidence and follow international treaties.
“In issues that rely heavily on intelligence you have to be guided by what’s in the public domain, but bear in mind history of this subject, particularly with regards to weapons of mass destruction.”
The spokesman went on to say “we have no problem with the expulsion of spies”, after Mrs May announced she will be kicking out 23 Russian diplomats who have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers.
But the spokesman said such moves risk starting a “tit for tat” response and that measures to “hit them in the pocket” would be more effective.
Asked whether Russia should have been given more time to provide an explanation for the use of a military-grade never agent in Salisbury, the spokesman said: “Strict procedures are set out by the Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
“There are strict protocols that must be followed now, but we cannot accept any kind of outrage of this kind on UK soil.”