By almost all accounts, Theresa May has had a wretched 12 months since calling the general election last April (she was PRWeek’s Flop of the Year for 2017, no less).
But the PM and her government’s ability to rally support against Russia among traditional allies, and unite much of popular opinion behind her cause, have given May a lift this month.
Russia-UK relations have hit a low point following the alleged poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, on 4 March in Salisbury, Wiltshire. The UK blamed Russia, saying the military-grade nerve agent used means Vladimir Putin’s government must be responsible.
For the first time in recent history, May looked every inch the national stateswoman in a strongly worded speech in Parliament in which she denounced the "unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom". (Russia denies the allegations).
May promised "more extensive measures" against Russia, and delivered. Shortly after the speech the PM announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats and symbolic gestures such as snubbing any presence by UK ministers at this summer’s football World Cup in the country.
Crucially, May helped galvanise a global audience, highlighting in her speech Russian cyber hacking in Germany and Denmark, the country’s annexation of Crimea and its veiled military threats against the US.
At the time of writing, 26 countries have said they would follow the UK and expel Russian diplomats.
Given current tensions with the EU amid the Brexit negotiations, it’s notable that European Council president Donald Tusk was among the most supportive of the move. He suggested further actions could be on the way:
Today 14 EU Member States decided to expel Russian diplomats as direct follow-up to #EUCO discussion last week on #SalisburyAttack. Additional measures including further expulsions are not excluded in coming days, weeks.— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) March 26, 2018
The US expelled 60 Russian diplomats and issued an unequivocal statement against what it called Russia’s "ongoing pattern of destabilising activities around the world." Again, this is significant, given the perception that the Trump administration has been wary of criticising Putin’s government.
May’s achievements are brought into sharper focus when compared with her opposite number in Labour, where Jeremy Corbyn is under sustained attack for his apparent failure to tackle anti-Semitism in the party.
Corbyn received some criticism for his response to May’s speech. He said the attack had "appalled the country" but was accused by the PM of tarring everyone of "Russian extraction" with the same brush when he pointed to the Conservatives for accepting donations from "Russian oligarchs".
Some Labour MPs also questioned Corbyn’s more measured call for "dialogue" with Russia, urging him to stand more squarely behind the Prime Minister on the issue.
The episode is a reminder that, given the right circumstances, the ‘Maybot’ can still be a remarkably effective communicator and political operator.