Tories on Corbyn and Russia. Shameful, hypocrites or deceitful?
Last Wednesday, the British PM Theresa May told the House of Commons it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the terrorist attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, in Salisbury. Most MPs in the chamber showed their support to the government to take firm action against Russia together with the West and the European Union.
The Labour leader’s response, however, was that although he was condemning the “deeply alarming attack” and the Russian authorities had to give a full account of what was going on, Britain needed “to continue seeking a robust dialogue with Russia on all the issues currently dividing our countries, rather than simply cutting off contact and letting the tensions and divisions get worse and potentially even more dangerous.”
Jeremy Corbyn then took the occasion to launch an unexpected political attack on the Conservative Party and the very generous donations received from Russian oligarchs since Theresa May became PM. Most Labour MPs decided to support the Government against the party leadership, though.
On the Tory side, backbenchers strongly criticised Jeremy Corbyn’s stance. Iain Duncan Smith, never shy of sharing his opinion, said that while Theresa May had risen to the occasion, colleagues would be disappointed by Corbyn’s partisan attack. Another Tory MP, Johnny Mercer, described Corbyn’s response as a “shameful moment.”
The right-wing press naturally started to call the Labour leader “Kremlin Stooge,” “Putin’s puppet” and claimed that, by all means, his choice proved he is unfit to become prime minister.
But no one — apart from social media users — was prompt to remind Nigel Farage of his past words. Indeed, according to the former Ukip leader, the European Union is more dangerous than Russia, which he described last year on his LBC radio show as “the Russian bear.”
“I think this constant eastwards expansion of the European Union, coupled to the fact they are now building a European Union Army worries me. We’re back in a Cold War. We’re back in shadow boxing. Whether Putin is a threat or not, let’s please stop poking the Russian bear with a stick. It simply doesn’t make sense.” (Nigel Farage on LBC, January 2017.)
In an interview for GQ magazine in 2014, Mr Farage was asked which current world leader he most admired. His rather obvious answer was... Vladimir Putin. Something he shares with Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and other far-right party leaders in the world with varying degrees of reverence.
“As an operator, but not as a human being, I would say Putin. The way he played the whole Syria thing. Brilliant.” (Nigel Farage in GQ, March 2014.)
Not only did the Ukip MEP repeat his admiration for Putin in an interview for German weekly newspaper Die Zeit in 2017, but he also expressed his hatred of the European Union.
“In 2013, as a political operator, he was the best in the world. Yes, this is what I said. As a political operator, he is to be admired.”
“It is obvious that the EU wants to expand to the east and threatens Russia. That’s completely mad.”
“I want the EU to be destroyed and it doesn’t matter if God or the Dalai Lama wants it as well. The EU is an anti-democratic, failing structure.”
“You know, you are the first person who has asked me if Russia supported me. Maybe you have a special German mindset. No other journalist in the world has asked these questions.” (Nigel Farage in Die Zeit, May 2017.)
MP, ‘a person of interest.’
No one to spot a Tory MP, John Whittingdale, asking Theresa May to protect the BBC (actually subliminally asking the government not to ban the Russian news channel RT from the UK). Nobody complained about it or called it a tendentious intervention from the former Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Though, the very MP admitted having close ties to Ukraine former president Viktor Yanukovych’s (Vladimir Putin’s puppet) acolyte, Dmitry Firtash.
“Mr Whittingdale is also director of the British Ukrainian Society (BUS), which the MP says has received financial support from Mr Firtash. In the register of members’ interests, Mr Whittingdale lists the society’s address as at a palatial office block in London’s Knightsbridge used in the past by the Firtash Foundation and Group DF.”
“The MP, who is chairman of the British-Ukraine All Party Parliamentary Group, has travelled to Ukraine at the BUS’s expense.” (The Independent, March 2014.)
Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian businessman who once acknowledged to the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine that a notorious Russian crime lord helped him start his business, was himself involved with a company owned by... Paul Manafort — Donald Trump’s aide who was indicted by a federal grand jury, last year, as part of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.
“In 2008, according to court records, senior Trump aide Paul Manafort’s firm was involved with a Ukrainian oligarch named Dmytro Firtash in a plan to redevelop a famous New York hotel, the Drake. The total value of the project was $850 million. Firtash’s company planned to invest over $100 million, the records say.”
“That same year, Firtash acknowledged to the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine that he got his start in business with the permission of a notorious Russian crime lord, according to a classified State Department cable. Other cables say Firtash made part of his fortune through sweetheart natural gas deals between Russia and the Ukraine.” (NBC News, August 2016.)
It is fair to wonder whether John Whittingdale has always remained impartial and unbiased in his treatment of matters pertaining to Russia, despite obvious ties? In a recent interview on the Russian news service Sputnik (February 2018), the MP certainly tried to be very careful with each answer he gave to specific questions on the UK-Russia relationship.
Already in April 2016, The Mirror had claimed that Whittingdale might have become a person of interest for secret agencies like Russia’s FSB in order to influence him over future political decisions.
“Some commentators believe MI5 and MI6 may be speaking to “friendly” liaison intelligence officers in the US and other friendly countries like Poland to see whether any agency such as the FSB – the successor to Russia’s KGB – have tried to influence Mr Whittingdale.”
“A former British intelligence officer told the Mirror: “Certainly, Whittingdale’s tastes would be of interest to a hostile intelligence agency like Russia.”
“It isn’t necessarily what position he is now, it’s what job he might have in future. Could somebody outside Britain influence him in a way that could put him in a position where he’d be of use?” (The Mirror, April 2016.)
Awkward Tory-Russia ties.
John Whittingdale isn’t the only MP who may have deep links with Russia and Vladimir Putin though. In August 2012, a group of Tories launched an organisation they called the “Conservative Friends of Russia” (or CFoR) at the Embassy of Russia in London. Set up by Richard Royal, a professional political consultant.
The aim of the organisation was simple: “to improve relations between the two countries, provide a forum for open debate and help to inform decision making in business and politics.”
However, in an article for the London Review of Books, author and journalist Peter Pomerantsev claimed that leaked e-mails from Russian officials allegedly said that the CFoR was being used to campaign against the Magnitsky Act in Westminster.
In his article, Pomeranzev explained that after the resignations of the CFoR board of Tory grandees (among which the honorary president, Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the organisation became the “Westminster Russia Forum” (or WRF), a now bi-partisan group that would organise discussions and speeches with various speakers, from human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell to hard Tory Brexiteer MP John Redwood or even former Labour minister Jack Straw. Did they actually know what the WRF stood for or anything of its past? Probably.
“Straw mumbled and we could barely make out what he said but it was something about how thankful he was for Russia’s involvement in Syria and how the easiest thing one could do in diplomacy was pick fights and one shouldn’t. The speech went down well with the Russians in the room.” (London Review of Books, February 2015.)
In a more recent piece for the Sunday Times, last November, Andrew Gilligan wrote that “the forum is the successor to the Conservative Friends of Russia, which had to disband in 2012 after a number of MPs resigned from its board amid allegations that it amounted to “Tories for Putin”.”
Then, just two weeks ago, the WRF posted a blog “Is there anything we can’t blame on Russia?” in which the author — freelance journalist and WRF Scottish Representative Iain Morse — basically explained that the West has a tendency to blame Russia for everything (from Trump to Brexit, and the rise of the far-right in Europe — without actually naming it thus), when in fact “Putin has plenty to deal with at home and on his immediate borders.”
Taking the blame-game to yet another level, the author blamed think tanks and western governments, “exiled oligarchs, the US and UK defence industries, and the Visegrad Group,” for making Russia a threat “without bothering to corroborate their claims.”
Such a strong defence of Russia and Putin should not come as much of a surprise from an organisation that aims “to improve relations between the two countries.” However, the fact that the post was published on the WRF blog just one day before the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury definitely gives a different feel. And if it is alright to question Jeremy Corbyn on his soft stance towards Russia and Putin, it should be okay to question the Westminster Russia Forum too.
On 14 March, the WRF released a ‘pre-statement’ that explained the group was awaiting Moscow’s response to Britain’s statement over the Salisbury attack before releasing their own full statement. In the meantime, they had decided to suspend all WRF public events.
It took two days for the Westminster Russia Forum to finally release a statement on the UK-Russia situation and where the organisation stood. Does it really take two long days to write a statement on UK-Russia crisis, though? Since the WRF is based in Britain and its “sole aim is to promote bilateral commercial, cultural and political ties between the UK & Russia,” it should have been prompt to unequivocally support the British prime minister.
And whilst Jeremy Corbyn (no bias here: I am no fan of JC!) has been accused of not standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Theresa May and even called names by the right-wing press and Tory MPs (“Kremlin stooge”, “Putin’s puppet”...) because he urged the government to take a “calm, measured” approach...
... there was no Daily Mail, no Sun, no Tory MP criticising or calling the Westminster Russia Forum “Putin’s poodle” or the “Kremlin’s Voice in the UK”.
Why should they, anyway?... The WRF was, of course, always going to be giving its unequivocal support to the British prim... well...
See the words used by the Westminster Russia Forum vs the ones of the UK Foreign Secretary and the UK Defence Secretary:
- WRF: “Both the exact motive and identity of those behind this criminal act remain unclear.”
- Boris Johnson: “We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was (Putin’s) decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on streets of UK.” (Evening Standard)
- Gavin Williamson: “It is absolutely atrocious and outrageous what Russia did in Salisbury. [...] If we doubted the threat Russia poses to our citizens, we only have to look at the shocking example of their reckless attack in Salisbury.” (The Independent)
See the words used by the Westminster Russia Forum vs the ones of Jeremy Corbyn:
- WRF: “We endorse and support the position of the Government of the United Kingdom but urge restraint and calm. [...] We as an organisation have argued for restraint, dialogue and patience. [...] Again we urge restraint, caution and calm by the political leadership and media...”
- Jeremy Corbyn: “(Our police and security services) have a right to expect full support in their work, just as the public should also be able to expect calm heads and a measured response from their political leaders.” (The Guardian)
- WRF: “We urge the Governments of the United Kingdom and Russia to try and find whatever accommodation, dialogue and cooperation possible to identify those involved in this act of criminality.”
- Jeremy Corbyn: “Right now, the perpetrators of the Salisbury attack must be identified and held to account.” (The Guardian)
It is interesting that when Jeremy Corbyn made his statement, the right-wing press and the Conservatives nearly called him a traitor and an unfit leader, but when the Westminster Russia Forum (a mostly Tory organisation that ‘transformed’ itself into a bi-partisan group) released its own statement — that went so much further than Mr Corbyn over playing the appeasement card with Russia — everything was fine.
The statement by the Westminster Russia Forum was otherwise supportive of the UK Government, but it definitely showed that the organisation was walking on eggshells and didn’t want to cross the line Theresa May, Boris Johnson or even Gavin Williamson had quickly crossed in the media.
Also appearing to eventually walk on eggshells, last Sunday, was the Foreign Secretary who had to defend a £161,000 donation made to the Conservative Party at a fundraising auction in 2014 by the wife of a former Russian deputy finance minister, who served under Putin, in return for a tennis match with him.
On the Andrew Marr Show, Boris Johnson said that he found it “quite extraordinary” that while those who had been attacked were critically ill, for the “fire to be somehow turned on Conservative Party funding.”
“To the best of my knowledge, all possible checks (on donations) have been made and... will continue to be made. [...] If there is evidence of gross corruption in the way that gentleman in question obtained his wealth... then it’s possible for our law enforcement agencies to deprive him of his wealth with an unexplained wealth order - that is a matter for the authorities, it’s not a matter for me.”
George Eaton, political editor of the New Statesman was absolutely spot on when he tweeted that day that “a point too few MPs are making: Russia knowingly targeted Britain at a moment of weakness (Brexit and Trump).”
It truly seems cynical now that politicians from every side of the UK political spectrum — whether Brexiteers or Remainers — have been so busy talking, debating, fighting, infuriating, sharing insults and ultimately dividing the nation over Brexit, for the last 18 months or so, that all other worries, risks and threats have been totally forgotten or put on stand-by... including — especially — Vladimir Putin.
What needs to be understood is not whether Theresa May was right to have a hard stance on Russia over the Salisbury spy poisoning and expel 23 diplomats, but why some people (Jeremy Corbyn et al.) got very unfairly portrayed in the media over their softer approach to deal with Russia, compared to others (Farage, Whittingdale, Westminster Russia Forum...).
According to Lucy Fisher in The Times, Theresa May had not allowed for the Labour leader to be briefed on the attack, unlike her predecessor, David Cameron, with Mr Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, ahead of the parliamentary vote on military action in Syria in 2013 that he eventually lost.
“Mr Corbyn was extended (an intelligence) briefing on the attack under privy council rules but was not given access to the same detail as Mrs May (before the PM updated the House of Commons). [...] Theresa May did not offer the Labour leadership the same access to highly classified information this week as David Cameron gave to Ed Miliband over Syria in 2013.” (The Times, 17 March 2018.)
If it is true that Jeremy Corbyn was not given a full intelligence briefing before the prime minister’s statement in Parliament, it is perfectly understandable that, having been purposely misled by Theresa May, he wrote his own statement with less information in hand and less certainty over what had happened in Salisbury. In this case, urging the government to take a calm and careful approach to the crisis was the most responsible thing to say in the Commons indeed.
Is the nasty party back for good?
One question remains: Were the attacks against Mr Corbyn really about his soft stance on Russia, an attempt to cover up the financial ties the Tories have with Vladimir Putin and his acolytes, or was it simply about politics and about the Tory press and politicians using a serious and dangerous crisis to annihilate the leader of the opposition and already have an eye on the prize?
Two videos of Theresa May’s visit to the site of the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, last week, seem to lead towards the second and third option.
The first video shows a very solemn prime minister who wants to show she is strong and stable.
The second video shows a totally different Theresa May, enjoying herself among the public that gathered around the site, smiling (!!), fist-bumping (!!!), taking selfies (!!!!) at the location of a serious chemical attack, i.e. a crime scene. Some will argue that the only thing missing in the video was the blue rosette!
This video will certainly be incredibly uncomfortable to watch for the Grenfell Tower victims who had to wait for some time before being sent the maybot, not the prime minister who visited Salisbury.
Kremlin ties or not, it looks increasing likely that the shame and the hypocrisy will remain with the Conservatives once again and tarnish a little bit more the party Theresa May once called the nasty party.
“There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies, You know what some people call us: the nasty party.” (Theresa May, October 2002.)
Deception in politics can be fatal. If the Tories have played Jeremy Corbyn in the media over the Russia crisis in order to hide their Kremlin ties and/or to win voters, it might be the one pill too hard to swallow for millions of voters. •
- Nigel Farage: I admire Vladimir Putin (The Guardian).
- They will always hate me (Die Zeit).
- Friends of Russia or Friends of Putin? (Henry Jackson Society)
- Moscow-on-Thames (Foreign Policy).
- Friends like these (London Review of Books).
- Tory blushes deepen over activities of Conservative Friends of Russia (The Guardian).
- Why Europe Is Right to Fear Putin’s Useful Idiots (Foreign Policy).
- Revealed: how Russia invaded the heart of British power (The Sunday Times).
- Statement of the Westminster Russia Forum to the ongoing bilateral crisis (Westminster Russia Forum).
- Johnson: £160k tennis match did take place (BBC News).
- Corbyn not given access to top‑secret information (The Times).
(This article was first published in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com)