Boris Johnson has attacked Jeremy Corbyn for “playing Russia’s game” after the Labour leader accused him of “exaggeration” over evidence that Moscow was to blame for the Salisbury poisoning.
The Foreign Secretary has come under fire after an announcement on Tuesday that Porton Down scientists had not verified the source of the Novichok nerve agent believed to have been used in the March 4 attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
Mr Corbyn said the Tory either had information that he had not shared with the laboratory or it was a “bit of exaggeration” and called for a “responsible” approach to the situation.
During a local election campaign visit to Watford, Mr Corbyn said: “He claimed categorically – and I think he used the words 101% – that it had come from Russia. Porton Down have not said that, they said that they’ve identified it as Novichok, they cannot identify the source of it.
“Either the Foreign Secretary has information that he’s not sharing with Porton Down or it was a bit of exaggeration. I don’t know which it is, but I think we need a responsible, cool approach to this.”
In an interview on German TV on March 20 when he was asked why the UK believed that Russia was the source of the nerve agent, Mr Johnson said: “The people from Porton Down, the laboratory, they were absolutely categorical. I asked them that myself. I said ‘Are you sure?’. He said ‘There’s no doubt’.”
The Foreign Secretary hit back at Mr Corbyn over the row and accused him of “playing Russia’s game”.
In a series of tweets, Mr Johnson said: “It is lamentable that Jeremy Corbyn is now playing Russia’s game and trying to discredit the UK over Salisbury attack.
Let’s remember the key facts:
“1) Porton Down identified nerve agent as military grade Novichok; 2) Russia has investigated delivering nerve agents, likely for assassination, & as part of this programme has produced and stockpiled small quantities of Novichoks; 3) Russia has motive for targeting Sergei Skripal.
“28 other countries have been so convinced by UK case they have expelled Russians. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn chooses to side with the Russian spin machine.” Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said Mr Johnson seems to have “misled the public” and claimed he has shown repeatedly that he is unable to represent the country “responsibly”.
Meanwhile, a message stating that Porton Down had established that the Novichok nerve agent came from Russia was deleted from the Foreign Office Twitter feed.
The tweet, issued on March 22, said: “Analysis by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down made clear that this was a military-grade Novichok nerve agent produced in Russia.”
Explaining the deletion of the tweet, a Foreign Office spokesman said it had been an inaccurate summary of comments made by the UK’s ambassador to Russia, Laurie Bristow, at a briefing in Moscow. Referring to Dr Bristow as “HMA” – Her Majesty’s Ambassador – the spokesman said: “A full transcript and video of the briefing have been available on GOV.UK since 22 March.
“An HMA Moscow briefing on 22 March was tweeted in real time by @UKinRussia and amplified by @foreignoffice, to explain what happened in Salisbury to as wide an audience as possible. One of the tweets was truncated and did not accurately report our ambassador’s words. We have removed this tweet.”