Labour members on the front line are worried about how voters will react to Jeremy Corbyn’s equivocal response to the attempted assassination in Salisbury of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, and his daughter.
The front line in this case is the May local elections, including polls in the 32 London boroughs where the Tories fear they are in for a drubbing.
But at a training session last week for new candidates in one of those boroughs the very first question was about how to respond on the doorstep to perceptions that the Labour leader is soft on the Kremlin.
The candidates were advised to focus on the fact despite his apparent scepticism Corbyn had backed Theresa May’s expulsion of Russian diplomats. Furthermore, a host of Labour figures including their local MP and Shadow Ministers Nia Griffiths, Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer had firmly laid the blame on the Kremlin.
Worried local campaigners will also have noted that the Shadow Chancellor, John Mc Donnell strongly condemned President Putin. He told Robert Peston
“We support exactly what the Prime Minister said and we condemn Russia for this. Whichever way you look at it (Vladimir Putin) is responsible … All the evidence points to him”.
McDonnell denied that he was contradicting his leader who he said had given what he described as a “constructive critique” which had been “misread” by others.
In my view McDonnell’s description is valid when applied to Corbyn’s Guardian article in which he said “the use of military nerve agents on the streets of Britain is barbaric and beyond reckless” and attacked the Putin regime for “its conservative authoritarianism, abuse of human rights or political and economic corruption.”
But the damage had been done by his inept presentation of his case in the Commons on Wednesday which dismayed Labour MPs on the front and back benches and, of course, delighted Tories and their media allies who plan to make Corbyn’s alleged lack of patriotism an election weapon.
There are obvious dangers for Labour that this could work in a General Election. The question of whether Corbyn measures up as a Prime Minister could be a bigger issue than it was in 2017.
But will it be a lifeline for the Tories on May 3rd — Will the fears of the Labour candidates I was with last week be realised?
To an extent that will depend on the effectivenesss of Labour’s counter attack. They will highlight the Tories’ fondness for Russian cash. Boris Johnson confirmed to Andrew Marr that he did take tennis match with David Cameron for which the wife of a former Putin minister had paid £160k at a Tory fundraiser.
Laboiur will also seek to show that they have been making the running on tackling dirty foreign money while the Tories have been dragging their feet. McDonnell told Peston that his proposed levy on properties owned by foreign companies would didn’t just apply to Russian oligarchs, but Russians made up “at least a quarter” of those who would be affected.
Perhaps Labour’s best hope is that the elections are genuinely local and that health, education and housing will be at the top of voters’ minds.
I’m still optimistic that on May 4th it will be the Tories looking for alibis for bad results, especially in London.