Week in Review: Nerve agent attack sees Corbyn fall down the rabbit hole

The week wasn't really defined by the Russian nerve agent attack. It was defined by the British response. The spotlight we'd expect to shine outward turned inwards and, in a way that's become depressingly common, we didn't like what we found.

Strip it down to its bare bones and you've got a relatively simple situation here. The evidence overwhelmingly points to Russian state involvement. They have the motivation, they have the ability and they have the track record. No-one else does. But it is not proven yet and in all likelihood, because of the nature of the operation, never will be. So there is enough doubt for conspiracy theories to blossom and nervy politicians to be frozen by inaction.

In normal times, the obvious story would have defeated the imaginative ones. But we are not living in normal times. We are living through a substantial breakdown of trust in government and media. So instead of presenting a united front, British politics fell into recrimination and division.

Jeremy Corbyn made several errors in his response to Theresa May's statement on the Salisbury attacks - some of judgement, others of tone. But the key element was his eagerness to find an alternate explanation for the incident.

His statements were confused and contradictory, probably due to a growing sense of crisis as his back and front benchers rebelled against him. On Thursday afternoon he agreed "all the evidence points towards" Russia, but by Friday morning he had written an article in the Guardian claiming "a connection to Russian mafia-like groups that have been allowed to gain a toehold in Britain cannot be excluded".

He is right, it cannot be excluded. But there seems little reason to think it is the case. The nature of the nerve agent makes it highly unlikely.

Novichok, the 'N-series' of nerve agents, was secretly developed in Russia in the 1970s. Most of the information we know about it comes from Russian chemist Vil Mirzayayanov, who exposed the programme in 1991. It acts by flooding the gaps between nerve cells with acetylcholine.

It's really powerful stuff. A drop of VX, from the V-series, can kill a healthy adult. But the later N-series is much stronger than that, especially in the form of the most potent members - Novichok-5 and 7.

That's why they are binary agents, made from two safe precursor chemicals which are then mixed together just before use, probably at a pesticide or fertiliser manufacturing plant. This allows an agent to transport the chemicals safely and only create the lethal mixture when absolutely necessary.

Why on earth would a Russian mafia want to do this, rather than just shoot someone? What possible criminal group would have the means of achieving this? And why?

The involvement of the Russian state answers both those questions. They have the ability. In fact, they are the only people who know how to produce the agent.

They have the motivation, which is to send two messages. The first is to Russian double-agents that they can track them down. The second is to the international community, and Britain in particular, that they can act indiscriminately in the sovereign territory of other states, while still being considered respectable enough to host major international sporting tournaments like the World Cup.

They have also exhibited the pattern of behaviour to make this scenario credible, not least in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko using a radioactive isotope in 2006. As Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told the BBC:

"We have no reason to doubt the findings and the assessments made by the British government, not least because this takes place against a backdrop of a pattern of reckless behaviour by Russia over many years. The illegal annexation of Crimea, the continued destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, cyber-attacks and meddling in national elections, and many other activities. This is one element of many."

To compare this case with the security dossiers on Iraq, as Corbyn's spokesman Seamus Milne did, is absurd. This is a specific incident, in a small location, on British soil, which can be tested domestically by world-class analysts. It is not the same as the inane reports compiled by a desperate administration to create an excuse for war on the military capacity of a state they had not visited.

But in one sense Milne is right. At the heart of this is Iraq and the body-blow it dealt to the country's trust in itself. Iraq was the first domino. It broke trust in government. The financial crisis broke trust in the economy. The expenses scandal broke trust in MPs. Phone-hacking broke trust in the press. The Jimmy Savile outrage broke trust in the BBC.

One by one, the institutions crumbled.

Since the Brexit vote, many people claim that economic arguments are not considered important by the public. In fact, polling suggests they remain highly pertinent. What changed is that the public did not believe those making economic warnings. The trust was gone.

Something similar is happening here. Most will be willing to go with the account given by No.10 and the overwhelming majority of experts. But for many others, there is enough uncertainty to create a different narrative. One of 'false flag' incidents, which are so popular on the internet among the deranged and the terminally ironic. Or one where the government is accused of carrying out the operation to distract from its other errors. Or one where you can argue that - who knows? - maybe the mafia did it.

This is the age of distrust. It goes from the bottom of the internet sewer to the office of the leader of the opposition. It makes firm, concerted action and national solidarity almost impossible.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in Review: Back to the Cold War

We don't admit it, but there is something oddly reassuring about underhand Russian operations. They remind us of a simpler time, when there were good guys in the West, bad guys in the East, and the moral chaos of September 11th, fake news and the financial crisis were years in the future.

This week's extraordinary events, in which former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were attacked using some kind of nerve agent, even felt at times like an ITV drama. The fact it took place in the unlikely location of Salisbury, a tranquil and picturesque Wiltshire town, cemented that impression.

But the reality is quite different. If this is eventually proved to be a Russian assassination attempt it takes place in a bleak new reality, one in which the subversion of information is a core component of international conflict. It takes place in a Britain which is far less sure of itself and its place in the world than it was in the past.

The authorities have struggled to isolate the agent used or where the attack took place. It may have been slipped into Skripal's food or drink at the pizza restaurant he ate at, or in the pub he visited, or perhaps surreptitiously in a gift his daughter brought back from Russia, or it may have somehow taken place at home, or it could have been sprayed at his face by someone approaching him in the street. Without even quite basic information about what took place, we were left to follow logical conclusions - that a former Russian agent of the type Vladimir Putin is on record saying he'd like to get was attacked using a method previously adopted in Russian operations. But there was no firm proof to make water-tight what that reasoning led to.

Instead, the foreign secretary was left to go to the Commons and inform MPs of the situation. As usual with serious news events - think back to his behaviour during the London riots - the Boris Johnson brand of quibbling loose-lipped swagger proved highly ill-suited to the gravity of the situation. He managed to wrongly state that the England team would boycott the World Cup in Russia, only for his staff to later clarify that he meant dignitaries. He then seemed to suggest that this and other Russian efforts were an act of war - a comment which carries greater repercussions than he appeared aware of.

A pretty standard series of ideas for how to respond followed, including diplomatic expulsions and new financial sanctions. None of them seemed likely to scare the Kremlin. All of them have been tried before. There is little to suggest this would stop the Russians trying another similar attack. It certainly hasn't until now. Some reports suggest they may have carried out 14 other assassinations in the UK since the killing of Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko using a radioactive isotope in 2006.

The lack of ideas about how to respond to Russia is demonstrative of how unlike the Cold War this is, despite appearances to the contrary. The new conflict is not really conducted by big power blocks carrying out assassinations. It is conducted by information warfare, which intends not to convince an audience of something, but to make it impossible for the public, in any country, to really know what is true and what isn't - or even if truth exists.

The Russian programme involves trying to subvert the American and French presidential elections and - in all likelihood - to interfere in the Brexit referendum. It sees bots and troll farms seek to lather online debate into a fake consensus around political and cultural issues. It mangles reality.

This attack does not take place in a Britain which is sure of its international relations and the protection of its allies. Quite the opposite. It takes place as the full spectrum of British political and administrative attention is on Brexit, as it tries to untie its own bonds with its allies and the rule-based international order it helped create. It takes place as a volatile American president signals his complete lack of interest in Nato and a willingness to sabotage the WTO, either through aggressive tariff programmes or simply leaving it.

Britain is isolated and divided, during a confusing period of intense technological change which favours insurgent activity, and working amid a fraying international order which it is itself helping to undermine. The weird nostalgia of the Cold War which this case encourages couldn't be further from the truth.Things are much more dangerous now.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

The snowed-in speech: May pedals furiously down a dead end

So here we are again. Another Brexit speech from the prime minister, another inch further down the road to nowhere. Her glacial transformation from fairy tale to economic disaster continues. Watching her over the last 18 months has been like seeing a children's animation turn into a bleak kitchen sink drama. She began with gusto and passion, promising that Britain could have all the trade it wanted - "the exact same benefits", to use David Davis' phrase, outside the single market and customs union as inside. Britain would call the shots, because it buys cars. We wouldn't pay any money to Europe and would walk out if they kept insisting on it.

Then slowly the compromises came. The Florence speech saw her repeat, almost word-for-word, Brussel's requirements on the budget, like a hostage reading out a statement written by their kidnapper. That kept talks on the road. This time she was faced with the universal calls for clarity on her position, which now came from three directions - Brussels, the hard Brexiters and the Remainers. A pretty formidable coalition, united at last in their desire to know what the hell was going on.

The choice is simple. If Britain keeps all its control it must give up its trade. But if it wants to keep all its trade, it must lose some control. This is not because Brussels is mean or vengeful. It is because it facilitates open borders on the basis that they are all part of the same legal system, with the same monitoring and enforcement bodies operating amid the same institutions. The UK is leaving those arrangements and consequences follow from that. At the moment, Britain looks like a teenager telling his parents he is leaving the house, but still demanding they drive over and cook his meals.

Rhetorically at least there was some improvement. May said the border in Ireland must stay completely open - a welcome confirmation given Boris Johnson's now stated views to the contrary. She admitted that there would be a loss of access to the single market due to her policies. She accepted that the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which she foolishly made a red line in late 2016, would probably still have a role in British law. Her criticisms of the EU were often fair. She was right to say, for instance, that they should not be demanding the regulatory standards of a Norway deal while offering the benefits of a Canada one. She will have earned some points for signing up to EU rules on state aid - although made the likelihood of a Labour rebellion on the final deal more likely.

And she did bring clarity. It's just that it wasn't on the choice between trade and control. It was clarity on her own fantasy about not having to make the choice.

Yes, she has given up on the idea that you can have your cake and eat it. But she still believes that she can take all the chocolate off the other slices and put it on hers, only for the EU to smile magnanimously and offer her some more helpings.

It is a nonsense. It is not going to happen. May is pedaling furiously now, but it is down a path which everyone has already warned her leads to a dead end.

Her Florence plan was for three baskets. There would be one part of the economy where the UK would harmonise its regulations with the EU. Another part would align, so that it had the same standards but reached them in its own way. And a third part would diverge. Harmonisation was for things like aviation and chemicals, where the UK would seek associate membership of EU agencies. Alignment was for goods, where regulatory standards would remain "substantially" the same in future and checked off by an independent arbiter, with a consequent loss of market access if they decided it was no longer up to scratch. And divergence was for things like agriculture and fisheries, which could go their own way.

To this she added one final basket - "creative solutions". This was for things like financial services, where there was no precedent for what she was trying to achieve. She knows she needs something that looks like harmonisation, but she can't allow the rules to be set outside of UK control for such a major sector. So her solution is to basically throw up her hands and say: 'Help me'.

If you are trying to come up with a half-in-half-out plan, this actually isn't bad. You'd expect this level of detail towards the end of 2016 rather than the start of 2018, but the substance is okay. You can see why No.10 has picked the sectors it has for each basket.

The trouble is that the half-in-half-out plan cannot work. The EU has said it does not work. For her to pursue it now is like spending days thinking about interior design for a building which is due to be demolished. If one country can take all the lovely bits and none of the troublesome bits, then everyone will do the same. European freedoms are based on establishing trust and that trust is earned by entwining yourself in the legal structure of the EU. But May has squandered that trust by spending 18 months berating Remainers, making threats to the EU, talking meaningless twoddle about non-existent options, and allowing her ministers to issue colourful attacks on Brussels' founding principles. She has let them go for over a year with no idea what she wants. Of all the things she has, trust isn't one of them.

The irony is that her three market model isn't actually all that different to the existing EEA agreement enjoyed by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. After all, they are in EU agencies. They have their own Efta court decide whether they are sticking to the EU regulations, but otherwise they maintain autonomy. They can veto new EU regulations, which has the consequence of extracting them from the relevant part of the EEA agreement, a system which is similar to how May imagined her alignment basket operating. They have areas - again, like May, agriculture and fisheries - where they have nothing to do with the EU.

But this is based on an arrangement where countries want to work together to find solutions. It is one where they accept all the responsibilities of the EU - including, yes, free movement - as a way of getting all the freedoms. Far from butting heads, the Efta court and the ECJ have increasingly begun taking each others' judgements as precedents, in a much more egalitarian relationship than any British political analyst would have predicted. None of the countries involved have ever triggered that veto. Why? It's partly because they don't want to lose access to the market. But it's also because these countries operate collegiately as part of a shared initiative. They are not stuck in the mire of emotional identity politics and reactionary nationalism, in which cooperation with other countries is seen principally through the prism of 19th Century naval warfare. Basically, they have not gone mad.

Britain basically has gone mad and in its spasm of anti-social behaviour it has settled on a plan which gives it everything it wants and none of the things it does not want. That is as far away from the pragmatic and workmanlike solutions of the EEA agreement as you're likely to get.

The EU response, which is not unfair given the circumstances, is that, well - Brexit means Brexit. If you don't want the rights and responsibilities then you're looking at an old-school goods-only trade deal, like Canada's. Probably they will find one single, solitary plus to stick on the end - some kind of moderate compromise on financial services, which manages to ease the concerns of several member states about access to London and offer May something to sell back home. It'll be devastating and self-harming to sabotage Britain's trading prospects with such a deal, but that is the direction of travel.

Today's speech was probably the last chance to change course, no matter how unlikely that was to happen. The fact she chose not to suggests that is now our final destination. It is not a good one. The next months will be very rough.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Latest entries