1. DON FOAMING
At 4.57am UK time, Donald Trump tweeted confirmation of the Daily Mail’s excellent front-page scoop that he won’t be coming to London to open the new US embassy. The President said his reason for refusing to ‘cut the ribbon’ was the Obama administration had sold the former embassy site in Mayfair for ‘peanuts’ and moved it to an ‘off location’ (near Vauxhall, south of the Thames).
Given that real estate is his business, Trump clearly thinks he knows a ‘bad deal’ when he sees one. Yet I note that the Embassy itself says on its website that the £1.2bn cost of the new building is self-financing: “The project has been funded entirely by the proceeds of the sale of other U.S. Government properties in London, not through appropriated funds”. Given the hugely costly security of the Nine Elms building (it has the first moat built in London since Medieval times), a cost-neutral result doesn’t look so bad. What may be paining Trump is that the Grosvenor Square site was sold to the Qataris for £500m, while the new site cost £600m, according to the Standard. The decision to relocate was actually taken by George Bush in 2008, but it’s the property deal Trump cares about.
Still, the Mail cites sources saying it was the “lack of ‘bells and whistles’ and Royal involvement” that had really “discouraged” Trump from coming to London for this ‘working visit’. The White House was already known to be keen to avoid public demonstrations too. The State Visit is still very much on ice, but if Trump wants the full Royal red carpet, it just underlines once more how rash it was of May to invite him so swiftly last January.
If proof were needed that this Presidency is not normal, look no further than BBC Radio 4’s morning headlines. Reporting Trump’s extraordinary remarks (leaked to the Washington Post) about preferring migrants from Norway rather than Haiti or African states, a BBC newsreader read out the line: “Mr Trump asked why the United states should take in people from what he called ‘shit hole’ countries”. The Queen is no stranger to earthy language, but she has a love of Africa and its people and proud record of treating its countries with respect. No.10 must have been squirming at yet more clues that she could be embarrassed by the State Visit of the world’s highest profile racist.
2. NEVERENDUM STORY
Nigel Farage’s remarks on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff – “I am reaching the point of thinking that we should have a second referendum on EU membership” – certainly sparked a flurry of excitement among Remainers yesterday. The former UKIP leader is delighted he’s back in the headlines, having stressed a fresh vote would ‘just finish the whole thing off and Blair can disappear off to total obscurity’.
He has clarified his remarks to the Telegraph online, saying he doesn’t want a second referendum but thinks it may be the best way to defend the 2016 Vote Leave victory. He also told Today: “Of course I don’t want one.” The Telegraph does not label Farage a ‘mutineer’ for his referendum remarks, and neither does the Express, which splashes ‘Be Ready for New EU Vote’. The Mirror has a new poll suggesting it’s now 55% Remain, 45% Leave and many pro-EU campaigners think the Corbyn surge of young voters would be sure to secure that kind of result.
Still, the polling on this has been far from clear and we are talking margins of error in most surveys. With Brussels sounding uncompromising to the UK and the EU boasting about plans for its own Army and closer integration, some floating voters may actually have drifted more to Leave in recent months. Of course, just because Nigel Farage says something doesn’t mean Theresa May will listen (the Mail calls him an attention-seeking flip-flopper, the Sun says his words were ‘jaw dropping’). But will they force Jeremy Corbyn to look again at his own options on a second vote? Labour MPs Heidi Alexander and Alison McGovern blog for us that Farage really wants another vote before the reality of EU exit really bites.
Meanwhile, Philip Hammond didn’t rule out the UK paying for access to EU financial markets yesterday, stating “We will talk about all these things”. No.10 gently chided him later, the PM’s spokesman saying “We will not be paying for market access”. Still, the FT has a nice read-out of the Downing Street summit with City chiefs, with one saying the PM asked ‘what steps they need to take’ to ensure our finance industry was at the heart of a Brexit deal. But the paper also warns that Hammond’s ‘managed divergence’ charm offensive won’t work with Germany. On Question Time, after a grilling from Piers Morgan, Labour’s Dawn Butler eventually repeated Corbyn’s line on the single market: “We can’t just stay in if we are leaving the EU”.
3. CHRIS GOODBYE
Chris Williamson has departed from the Labour frontbench team, a day after we published his interview calling for the doubling of council tax on expensive homes. It sounded like there was a typically Jeremy Corbynesque exchange with his old friend on Wednesday night, more in sorrow than anger, as Williamson was told he could either stick to his policy brief and the party line or choose the freedom of the backbenches. He chose the latter option.
The former shadow fire minister had made clear to me his ‘Differential Progressive Council Tax’ idea was not party policy, was subject to referendums and was up to local areas to adopt or not. Yet Shadow Communities Secretary Andrew Gwynne, and Labour council leaders, were very unhappy at the published remarks and made their views known to the party. The Tories’ online leaflet attacking the plans had worried many of them, not least as there are key local elections in May.
Gwynne (nor the shadow Treasury team) was not consulted about the proposal, which he felt risked undermining the party manifesto pledge to not raise income tax, VAT or national insurance at all on 95% of the public. ‘Freelancing’ on policy, and one outside his departmental brief, was deemed by the leadership a step too far. Some Labour MPs were privately pointing out last night that Williamson wasn’t however fired for saying last year that anti-semitism allegations were a ‘dirty low-down trick’ to attack the leader. Or for calling for MPs to face deselection if they failed to back Corbyn.
Yet Williamson has won praise among some activists, and not just on the Left, for at least trying to float the idea of a fresh look at local government finance. It’s extraordinary that all our current council tax bands are based on property valuations that last took place in 1991. Yes, 27 years ago. Calls for an extra higher band have even been mooted by some Conservatives. The longer that revaluation takes, the more bizarre the system will look over time. Note also that Williamson last night tweeted a reminder to vote for Momentum’s favourites for three extra NEC places. The ballot closes at noon today, and the results on Monday will show that Williamson is far from a lone voice on radical party policy change. Today’s also the deadline for the democracy review’ first phase and we have fresh details of Momentum’s plans later.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch David Dimbleby fail to shake Piers Morgan’s hand when offered it at the end of Question Time. (Scroll to 59mins 10 secs).
4. MOCKY HORROR SHOW
There are lots of scoops about today, many of them about sexism and equality. The Sun and Times reveal an unbroadcast exchange between John Humphrys and Jon Sopel about BBC colleague Carrie Gracie’s call for equal pay. “Dear God. She’s actually suggested that you should lose money,” Humphrys said. He tells the Sun it was “just silly banter between old mates”, but Beeb sources say management is ‘deeply unimpressed’. Woman’s Hour’s Jane Garvey tweeted it shows ‘what we’re up against’.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Dawn Butler has told the House magazine that trans candidates should be allowed to stand in all-women shortlists. The Guardian has an exclusive that the Westminster sex harassment report has been watered down, with the Greens blaming Labour delays. And the Sun reveals Tory MP Peter Bone has left his wife for a physio 20 years his junior. He has gifted them the public interest justification for an otherwise private family matter by referring to her repeatedly for comic and political effect in the Commons. The Sun says ‘Mrs Bone’ was mentioned SIXTY times in debates since 2005.
5. GENES GENIE, LET YOURSELF GO
Toby Young has published a wide-ranging rebuttal of stories about his attendance at a eugenics conference in London last year, claiming he was merely sitting with a ‘reporter’s notepad’ as he researched a lecture on the issue. He repeats his view that poor people should be offered a genetic screening to weed out embryos with lower IQ, stating this would be ‘an option, a way of giving their children a head start’. But he says it is ‘balls’ to suggest he quit over the eugenics row and said he left because of the damage caused to the Office for Students by his sexist tweets.
On Question Time last night, Dominic Raab said “it would’ve been to difficult to screen” all of Young’s online history, but added that his appointment “should have been [handled] better”. The Guardian reports a blog by Public Appointments Commissioner Peter Riddell, who declared “without any doubt this row makes a strong case for more extensive due diligence inquiries by departments in any case of doubt about a candidate”.