When GCHQ first got word of the events that would lead to Britain’s departure from Nato, they did not move quickly. Yes, it was interesting that a large number of Russian fishing vessels had simultaneously arrived off the Swedish island of Gotland, but it was hardly the sort of thing that justified a flash message to Whitehall, and certainly not something that would require the duty clerk in No 10 to wake the new Prime Minister at 2am.
After all, Jeremy Corbyn had only been in the job a few months and some officials noted — not unkindly — the toll the job was taking on him. Two general elections in barely six months had been followed by the immense task of governing Britain in its first year outside the European Union.
On top of that, he, nominally at least, was overseeing John McDonnell’s “economic revolution”. That agenda had already seen the Corbyn government facing staunch opposition in the Commons, the Lords and in the courts, as aggrieved investors claimed the British government had violated international trade agreements and even human rights law by confiscating shares.
No wonder the man was tired: let him sleep. No point waking him about some rock in the Baltic Sea with a population of 20,000 Swedes. No, the duty clerk thought, I’ll just tell the Chief of Staff. He might be a ferocious manager of Government advisers — he’d just summarily sacked another of Home Secretary Angela Rayner’s spads for alleged disloyalty — but he’s always very keen to hear news about Russia.
Curiously, when the clerk called the Chief of Staff just after 2am, the phone was answered on the first ring and he sounded wide awake. Nor did he sound surprised to hear that initial assessments suggested that the “fishing boats” were carrying several thousand armed Russian men who, though they were not in uniform, moved and spoke like a professional military unit.
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“Interesting,” the Chief of Staff drawled in response to the clerk, public school vowels to the fore, “but not urgent, surely? Sweden’s not even in Nato, after all. Not sure this is one we want to jump into.”
Surprisingly, that was not the view in Washington. Everyone knew that President Trump’s father, Fred, was not, as he had long claimed, from Sweden, but that didn’t stop the President from invoking his supposed Swedish blood in a televised address to the nation warning Vladimir Putin to “get those men off my father’s soil”. (The Washington commentariat were divided in their explanations for this new approach to Russia: some said it just was part of the 2020 election strategy; some said it related to the potential seizure of a Trump International hotel in St Petersburg; CNN ran another analysis piece suggesting the President was now in the advanced stages of dementia.)
Almost equally surprising, was President Macron’s similarly bellicose response. Keen not to let Trump set the pace, Macron made his own address, promising that France would honour its role as the ultimate guarantor of European security: “Aujourd’hui et pour toujours, la France protégera l’Europe.” Pledging to stand in solidarity with a fellow EU member, he even reminded the French and the world that France retained full nuclear strike capability.
In London, a rather different story. Prime Minister Corbyn of course addressed the Commons, but insisted that there was no clear evidence of Russian state involvement in “the events” in the Baltic. Britain would wait for the accounts of the Swedish and Russian governments before drawing conclusions, he told MPs, but talk of a military response was “baseless and irresponsible”. Calm diplomacy was the only way forward, he told a restive House.
He even drew some grim laughs as he ridiculed demands from Conservative Leader, Dominic Raab, for a more muscular response in defence of Sweden: “May I remind him, Mr Speaker, that he was foreign secretary in the government that tore Britain out of the European Union without an agreement and so severed our most important relationship with the Swedish people he now claims to care about?”
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From that day in early April 2020, things moved quickly. The Russian fishermen established a large, secure compound with fortifications, secure communications links and what satellite images suggested were several batteries of anti-aircraft missiles. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the fishermen were simply patriotic Russian citizens who had taken it upon themselves to protect Russia’s interests in the Baltic. In Moscow, state-run news channels ran packages about the Russian occupation of Gotland in 1808, quoting historians who said the island had always been Russian but was unlawfully seized by the Swedes.
Meanwhile, Macron pulled a further surprise by demanding that the response to the “Russian invasion of Sweden” be coordinated through Nato, not the EU military planning cell.
This, the cynics said, was an acceptance that the EU, shorn of British military involvement, lacked the clout needed to face down the Russians. Taking the Nato route was Macron’s way of testing American committment to the Alliance, and pressuring the Corbyn Government to support him.
The Corbyn Government did no such thing. Despite — or perhaps because of — the outrage of Conservatives and British diplomats and generals, the Prime Minister continued to insist on an approach he called “security through peace”. Britain would not take sides, No 10 said, because that would only escalate the situation. “Just as Jeremy worked for peace in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, he will work for peace here too,” the Chief of Staff told journalists.
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As part of the new government’s new way of doing politics, the Baltic crisis would be put to the new “citizens’ assemblies”, consultative panels that were supposed to inject fresh legitimacy into politics. “Jeremy is bringing the voice of the people to the heart of government,” in the words of a Guardian columnist.
When the Prime Minister addressed the Commons, in July, to report on the verdict of the citizens and the Government’s response, his statement set new standards for shock and surprise.
Not only did “the people” want no part in any dispute with Russia over Gotland, they wanted no part in any Nato response, Corbyn declared. Accordingly, the Government of the United Kingdom was invoking Article 13 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Britain would leave Nato.
The ensuing rage in the Commons forced Speaker Bercow to suspend the sitting for 15 minutes, and threaten to expel several Conservative members from the chamber. Even Emily Thornberry, shouting from the Labour backbenches, was severely reprimanded.
When the Prime Minister was able to resume his statement, he had more. Once that exit from Nato was completed, Corbyn continued, Britain would begin the process of retiring the Trident nuclear deterrent; the replacements for the Vanguard-class nuclear subs would be cancelled. “As a neutral nation committed to security through peace, Britain has no need of weapons that could kill millions,” he said, promising to spend the Trident budget on the NHS instead. Additional health spending would be focused on areas that had reported shortages of medical supplies and NHS staff following Britain’s EU exit, he added: “We will use this peace dividend to heal the wounds caused by the reckless Tory Brexit.”
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He ended his statement by setting out how these proposals had come directly from those citizens’ assemblies. “Up and down the country, thousands of British women and men and people of other gender identities have told us clearly that Britain’s future, the future of their children, will be secured not by rushing into the imperialist wars of past centuries, but by taking the path of peace and healing,” he told MPs. “This is the will of the people and we will implement it.”
In a briefing following the statement, the Chief of Staff waited patiently for journalists to stop shouting before explaining that, even as he spoke, UK ambassadors were serving notice to Nato members that Article 13 would apply and UK membership would cease on 31st October 2020. In the meantime, he explained, UK officers and officials had been ordered to withdraw from Nato structures and operations immediately. “We are leaving, so there is no point in them being there any longer,” he said.
Would Parliament get a say on the withdrawal, he was asked? No. The Prime Minister would be exercising prerogative power. “He is well within his rights to do so,” the Chief of Staff said. “There is ample precedent for a Prime Minister acting this way in service of the people.”
The legal challenge to that decision began the very next day. Raab himself said he wanted to be party to the action and was even prepared to appear in court, but quickly abandoned that plan when it became clear that the case would rest on the precedent set in R. (on the application of Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, otherwise known as the Gina Miller case.
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Despite contesting the case, the Government lost — and lost quickly. By late August, the Supreme Court had ruled that Parliament must have the final say on Article 13 and Nato exit. While Britain’s politicians fixated on court hearings in London, the rest of the world watched a rock in the Baltic.
The day after the Supreme Court ruling, Vladimir Putin made a televised statement: Russian citizens would be “rescued” from Gotland by the Russian Navy under a process witnessed by “monitors from neutral countries, including Great Britain”. The Russian president was effusive in his praise for Jeremy Corbyn, “a man of peace who is delivering security for his people and the world.”
Asked if the Prime Minister had spoken to the Russian President before that address, Downing Street declined to answer. Nor did No 10 respond to questions about a Reuters report from Moscow suggesting that the Chief of Staff had held two days of meetings with Putin in a Black Sea resort the previous week. A Moscow-based blog linked to the few remaining liberal opponents to Putin also suggested that the President had decorated the Chief of Staff with a medal, possibly the Medal for Impeccable Service XX, and legal title to a seaside dacha.
Within hours of that report hitting the wires, several prominent supporters of the Corbyn Government began to argue on Twitter that the Chief of Staff was not just a genius who had out-thought his domestic opponents, he was also a major international figure who deserved credit for defusing the Baltic crisis. Attempts to smear him as a Russian agent of influence, it was suggested, were just another “Black Ops” move to undermine the elected government by the British deep state.
When the Commons returned in early September, Prime Minister Corbyn showed no signs of changing his plans over the Alliance. He explained to MPs that, having served notice to quit, the process of UK departure from Nato could not now be stopped. His case was supported by both Trump and Macron, who both, in their own ways, made plain that Britain had made its choice and chosen a side.
Asked repeatedly by MPs to say that the Government would comply with the Court ruling and introduce legislation for the Article 13 exit, Corbyn declined to give a clear answer, instead pointing at the Conservative front bench and naming, in turn, every member who had sat in the Government of Boris Johnson. “How dare they, Mr Speaker, how dare they seek to block the will of the people, the people’s demand for security through peace?” he asked.
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No one was surprised by what came next in the Commons. Raab quickly formed an ad hoc alliance with around 20 Labour MPs (they quickly became known as the Atlee Group, though some preferred “Bevin’s Boys”) who moved to take control of the Order Paper and introduce legislation that would require the Government to pause the Article 13 notice and get Parliamentary consent to reinstating it.
Nor was the Chief of Staff’s first response a surprise: all Labour MPs supporting the motion would lose the Labour Whip and the party’s general secretary would not endorse their reselection as Labour candidates in future elections. “These MPs are siding with the Conservatives to try to drag Britain into war and danger,” the Chief of Staff told reporters. “The people have clearly said they want security through peace, but these MPs have made themselves the enemies of peace.”
The motion passed nonetheless. In early September 2020, lacking a Commons majority, facing a Supreme Court ruling and the prospect of parliamentary defeat, it was now widely expected that even the Corbyn Government would have to back down.
That was what journalists summoned to an on-camera Downing Street statement by both the Prime Minister and Chancellor McDonnell expected. McDonnell’s presence promoted widespread Twitter speculation that Corbyn would actually announce he was stepping down, perhaps for reasons of health, and hand over to his ally.
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In fact, the Prime Minister announced that he was immediately asking the Queen to prorogue Parliament. The new session would begin on 1st November, with a Queen’s Speech setting out Chancellor McDonnell’s New Green Deal. There would also be a bill setting a legal cap on military spending at 1% of GDP and giving details of the new hospitals and nurses that would be hired “in every constituency” using the “peace dividend” produced by scrapping the “Trident weapon of mass murder”.
“The will of the people is clear,” the Prime Minister declared. “They want security through peace and they want medicine not murder. That is what this Government will give them, by any means necessary.