While Prime Minister Theresa May has united her warring Conservative Party by denouncing Russia over the poisoning of a former spy, things have not gone so smoothly for the opposition Labour Party. Among Labour lawmakers, familiar wounds have reopened over the more ambivalent stance of its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Twice in Parliament this week, Mr. Corbyn, whose political views were forged in his leftist activism in the 1980s, has eschewed the supportive, cheerleading role that opposition leaders traditionally play to the prime minister when Britain is in conflict with a foreign power. At times, in his reluctance to criticize Moscow, he sounded like his ideological opposite, President Trump.
While he condemned the attack in Salisbury, England, as an “appalling act of violence,” Mr. Corbyn has claimed that the Conservatives took donations from wealthy Russians, and he has highlighted cuts to the British Foreign Office and called for the Russian authorities to be “held to account on the basis of the evidence.”
On Thursday, in an article in The Guardian, Mr. Corbyn added that criticism of Russia should not mean acceptance of “a ‘new cold war’ of escalating arms spending, proxy conflicts across the globe and a McCarthyite intolerance of dissent.”
His resistance to falling into line with Mrs. May’s tough stance revived tensions with centrist Labour lawmakers who were reluctantly reconciled to Mr. Corbyn’s leadership last year after his better-than-expected performance in national elections.
After Mrs. May and Mr. Corbyn spoke in Parliament on Wednesday, several Labour lawmakers welcomed the prime minister’s statement, including Hilary Benn, a former shadow foreign secretary, who argued that “as Russia has chosen to act against us in such an outrageous way, we have to demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves.”
One Labour critic of Mr. Corbyn, John Woodcock, tabled a parliamentary motion “unequivocally” accepting Russian culpability in the poisoning of the former spy, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia.
The right-wing press piled on, with the front page of the tabloid Daily Mail describing the Labour leader as a “Kremlin Stooge.”
“He didn’t want to say — he couldn’t say — the things that everybody would normally have expected the leader of the opposition to say, and that is an expression of Jeremy Corbyn’s deeply held foreign policy position,” said Steven Fielding, professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, who noted that the Labour leader’s political education was rooted in organizations like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Stop the War Coalition.
“The fact that Jeremy Corbyn is still waiting for the evidence to be confirmed, is a reflection of the genuine Jeremy Corbyn position of skepticism about the British state,” Mr. Fielding added. “The assumptions are very simply a deep mistrust of the British state and an internationalism defined by anti-imperialism.”
That worldview was on display in a briefing to journalists on Wednesday, in which Mr. Corbyn’s spokesman drew attention to the “problematic” history of the British intelligence services, particularly the claims of Iraqi stockpiles of chemical weapons that were used to justify British involvement in the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Those comments, relayed instantly back via Twitter to the parliamentary chamber, prompted Mrs. May to say that she was “surprised and shocked by the statement.”
Under the conventions of British politics, the spokesman is generally not named, but several Labour lawmakers identified him as Seamus Milne, a close ally of Mr. Corbyn, a former journalist at The Guardian and a powerful but divisive figure within the leadership team.
“Mr. Milne’s comments do not represent the views of the majority of our voters, members or MPs,” wrote the Labour lawmaker Chuka Umunna on Twitter, referring to members of Parliament. “We’ll get abuse for saying so but where British lives have been put at risk it is important to be clear about this,” he added.
In an editorial, Mr. Milne’s former newspaper described Mr. Corbyn’s statement as “dispiriting,” noting that his “reluctance to share Mrs. May’s basic analysis of the Salisbury incident made him look eager to exonerate a hostile power.”
Even some Corbyn-loyalists have taken a more aggressive stance against Moscow. The shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, pledged on Sunday to make no further appearances on the Kremlin-sponsored broadcaster Russia Today, saying that its coverage “goes beyond objective journalism.” He told the BBC that it was “right,” after the events in Salisbury, that Labour lawmakers did not appear on the Russian-sponsored channel.
But one commentator, John Rentoul, suspects that there is more support for Mr. Corbyn’s position outside Parliament where, he wrote, the Labour leader’s “idealistic opposition to warlike words goes down well with much of the general public.” And it remains true that despite the strong circumstantial evidence of Russian involvement, the British police have neither identified any direct link to the Kremlin nor named any suspects.
Whether Mr. Corbyn pays a political price for his stance may depend on how the Anglo-Russian rift develops. His supporters are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt, and most of his internal critics are already well-known opponents. While his comments gave plenty of ammunition to the right-wing press, many analysts, pointing to last year’s elections when the tabloids vilified the Labour leader, concluded that he might wear their criticism as a badge of honor.
Again Labour’s divisions are out in the open but, if nothing else, it proves that Mr. Corbyn is a different type of politician, one for whom calculation matters less than conviction.
“It’s not going to win him any votes,” Mr. Fielding said, “it can only harm him, but the question is how much.”