UK ministers are preparing to unveil new sanctions against Russia, eight days after the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal that threatens to bring relations between the two countries to crisis point.
Theresa May, prime minister, will chair a meeting of the National Security Council on Monday, with increasing pressure from inside her cabinet to name Russia as the likely source of the attack on Mr Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer and MI6 informant.
Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, and Gavin Williamson, defence secretary, who have emerged as the government’s most hawkish voices on Russia, are both in favour of financial and other sanctions against Moscow in response to Mr Skripal’s poisoning. Monday’s NSC meeting is “the opportunity”, said one Conservative aide.
Philip Hammond, chancellor, who has publicly clashed with Mr Johnson and Mr Williamson on other matters, backed their stance on Russia.
“I’ve been foreign and defence secretary in the past so perhaps [it’s] not that surprising that I might share the views of the current foreign and defence secretaries,” Mr Hammond told ITV.
The prime minister’s office has been wary of threatening action against Russia until a police investigation identifies the source of the attack. Downing Street declined to comment on Sunday.
Mr Hammond told the BBC that the police investigation should take its course, but added: “If there were to be an involvement of a foreign state, evidenced by this investigation, then obviously that would be very serious indeed and the government would respond appropriately.”
Mr Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal were found on March 4 collapsed on a park bench in Salisbury, where he lives. Police subsequently said they had been poisoned with a nerve agent.
Both remain in a critical but stable condition in hospital.
The precise nature of any London response against Moscow remains unclear but it could include expelling Russian diplomats.
Ministers have so far resisted calls backed by Labour for the government to inject measures into its sanctions bill that would replicate the so-called Magnitsky legislation in the US, which allows visa bans and asset seizures to be imposed on Russians connected with rights abuses.
However, Mr Hammond said there could now be a compromise. “We’re seeking to reach an accommodation,” he added.
Health officials, meanwhile, advised anyone who had visited the Salisbury branch of Zizzi restaurant on the same day as Mr Skripal and his daughter to wash their clothing to avoid potential contamination.
They sought to rebut criticism that the advice had come too late, saying they were acting on evidence as it became available, and were aiming to stop people exposing themselves to traces of the chemical in the coming weeks.
“We’re not anticipating . . . seeing new patients coming forward,” said Jenny Harries, deputy medical director of Public Health England, a government health agency.
In another sign of growing hawkishness on Russia, John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, called for fellow Labour MPs not to appear on the Kremlin-funded broadcaster RT, formerly known as Russia Today.
Mr McDonnell said RT, which launched a dedicated UK channel in 2014, “at times goes beyond objective journalism”.
“I’ve appeared on it in the past . . . I think we have to step back now,” he added. However, his position is not Labour policy.
RT reporting on the attack on Mr Skripal and his daughter has criticised “hysteria”, echoing the Kremlin’s own line.
In the past week, MPs from the Conservative, Democratic Unionist and Labour parties have all appeared on RT. Alex Salmond, the former Scottish National party leader, hosts a show on the channel.
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