Belfast Telegraph

PM Theresa May must act robustly against Russia's Vladimir Putin... but how, exactly?

How can Britain effectively punish the Kremlin, if indeed it is behind the poisoning of a former Soviet spy, in a way that would damage the country's economy?

By Chris Moncrieff

The prospect of apprehending the hitmen who poisoned former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter must now be regarded as so remote as to be close to zero. The Kremlin - if, indeed, it is behind this so-called "act of war" - will have ensured those responsible are now safely hidden away, most likely back in Russia. That happened in the similar case of Mr Litvinenko, who died. We got nowhere near those responsible for that crime.

So, how should Britain respond to this criminal outrage once the facts are better known? The idea of a boycott of the World Cup in Russia is just too feeble for words. It would make very little difference to anything - and Vladimir Putin and his henchmen would not care an iota.

The idea of the removal of some diplomats from the Russian embassy in London is another option, but this would simply be met with a tit-for-tat reaction from the Russian authorities in depleting the British embassy in Moscow. A complete break-off of diplomatic relations between the two countries is another possibility, but I doubt if even that would make a huge difference to the Kremlin.

It would seem at the moment that really severe sanctions against Russia - action which would visibly damage Russia's economy - might be the answer. But is Britain - without the co-operation of allies - capable of introducing sanctions on a scale that would have this effect?

Putin, despite his ruthless regime, is hugely popular in Russia and it is almost certain he will soon be re-elected as president. Meanwhile, statues of Josef Stalin, removed at the time the Berlin Wall was destroyed, are starting to re-emerge.

A worrying sign for the West at large - not just for the United Kingdom. And a massive problem for Theresa May.

If all that we hear is true, then the Palace of Westminster is not exactly the role model you might have expected it to be. There are now complaints not just of "sexism", but disgraceful insults of some women at Westminster, which is far worse.

There are also claims of a cult of bullying on the part of MPs towards their own staff. That is being inquired into.

On the bullying side of things, there is an allegation against the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, that he shouted at a female employee, whose health, it has been claimed, suffered as a result.

I do not want to prejudge the allegation against Bercow, but I have to say that it is as plain as a pikestaff, even to the most casual observer, that when he chides MPs for some perceived breach of the rules, he does so, firstly much too often, thereby interrupting the normal flow of debate, and usually in a far from courteous way.

On top of that, he refuses to wear the traditional garb that Speakers have worn down the ages. He is a public servant, like a military man, who can scarcely go on parade except in uniform. So, why does the House of Commons tolerate this behaviour?

And, as for the way women are treated, well I have to say that in something like half-a-century working inside the Commons, I never came across any seriously bad treatment of women in all those years. Perhaps I was going around with my eyes shut and my ears closed.

The latest shock allegation comes from the Scottish Nationalist Mhairi Black, the youngest MP. In her speech, she recited a litany of insults thrown at her, she claims. This included using the dreaded C-word five times. I am surprised she wasn't at least rebuked by the chair, as was the first MP, a man, who used the F-word a few years ago, while quoting from a prostitute's advertisement in a shop window in north London.

Ms Black's case, incidentally, would have been infinitely stronger if she had named these who delivered these insults - after all, she is protected by parliamentary rules against defamation. At the very least, she should have protested to the chief whips of the parties to which these people belonged. Perhaps she did.

Now, a blazing row has erupted at the top of the Labour Party, with Debbie Abrahams resigning in a fury from the Shadow Cabinet, accusing people in Jeremy Corbyn's own office of being "aggressive and intimidating" towards her.

Of course, no one expects the Commons to be peopled entirely by Little Lord Fauntleroys, but I do wonder whether some of these complaints may be over the top.

It is a well-known fact that the Australian parliament is, to its credit, far more tolerant of rudeness and robust insults than is Westminster.

I once heard a perplexed MP having to withdraw the use of the word "poppycock" at Westminster.

If you don't know what the word really means, just consult a dictionary. But, even so, it is now accepted in English as no more than a harmless word of criticism.

That is why I am surprised that Qantas, the Australian airline, has called on its staff to avoid words like "mother", "father" and "chairman", among many others, and instead to stick to "gender neutral" words to avoid offending (as though they would) various categories of people.

There was a time when we thought that political correctness was a passing phase which would quickly disappear. Not a bit of it.

It gets worse.

A contributor on BBC Radio 2 the other day was rebuked by a presenter for using the word "snowman". He should have said "snowperson".

Ye Gods!

It must be the irony of the year so far. The BBC gender pay gap row has led to the first quasi-political pay campaign in history, which has actually succeeded in reducing the salaries of some people, and is yet regarded as successful.

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