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Good morning. Stephen is off on his travels this week, so you’ve got me for the next couple of days until I head off myself — in this case with Rishi Sunak to Washington. Last week saw an unusual lull in British politics — a combination of a half-term Commons recess plus a rare sighting of summer — but Westminster is back in action today.
Sunak’s Washington agenda
Rishi Sunak will launch the UK political summer season today by updating the country on his efforts to “stop the boats”, including tackling the asylum backlog and cutting the use of hotels. Getting single males to share rooms is the latest wheeze.
But the big event this week will be the prime minister’s two-day visit to the US, including a meeting with President Biden, chats with business and political luminaries and a trip to watch a baseball game at the home of the Washington Nationals. Sunak may get to throw the first pitch.
I reckon this will be the fifth time he has met Biden, following last year’s G20 in Bali, the March Aukus defence summit in San Diego, the Belfast events in April on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and last month’s G7 in Hiroshima.
Bilateral relations have been a bit scratchy at times. Biden and the Democrats are no fans of Brexit and resent the fact that Sunak and fellow Brexiters destabilised Northern Ireland and made the UK a less influential ally in Europe.
Biden claimed last month that he had travelled to Ireland in April to make sure “the Brits didn’t screw around” over Northern Ireland and did not walk away from their commitments. British officials rolled their eyes and one said Biden had just come to Ireland “for a holiday”.
Interestingly, Downing Street insiders said Sunak will not make a big issue in Washington about Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, a $369bn green subsidy package which has been widely criticised by British ministers as protectionist.
When I travelled to Washington with shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves last month, she was convinced that Conservative sniping at Biden’s flagship plan had contributed to Britain becoming less relevant in the US capital.
However, the issue of Ukraine has brought the two sides closer together and Biden is said to strongly value the Aukus defence pact, which saw the UK and Australia sign up to a submarine deal to strengthen the west’s presence in the Pacific.
Sunak’s bold political move to address the post-Brexit mess of the Northern Ireland protocol with the so-called Windsor framework did win respect in the US.
But there is another issue which Sunak is expected to put front and centre of his visit and which he hopes can give Britain a viable global “leadership” role: regulating and developing artificial intelligence.
The British prime minister has spent considerable time recently talking to AI bosses — including ChatGPT’s Sam Altman — and is said to be energised by the prospect of grabbing the opportunities and managing the risks of the new technology.
In Washington he will argue the case for international alignment on regulation and offer the UK as a possible centre for any new bodies — perhaps modelled on the International Atomic Energy Authority — that are created for the purpose.
As I’ve reported, Sunak is also interested in the idea floating around in AI circles of creating a “Cern for AI” — an internationally backed research centre, operating under strict ethical controls, developing the new technology safely for the benefit of humankind.
Number 10 says he is interested in both ideas but is not backing either of them at this stage. In the first instance, Sunak just wants to get some global agreement on the need for regulatory alignment and co-operation.
The argument among UK ministers runs that the US would not be trusted as the centre of global regulation, given that it is the home to the big AI firms and is at loggerheads with China. And Britain might be seen as an honest broker in any US vs EU regulatory spat, making it an ideal place to deploy global leadership. Behold, a benefit of Brexit!
Starmer in the money
As all the parties gear up for the expensive business of fighting an election next year, a hitherto little-known South African-born businessman, Gary Lubner, has opened his cheque book to help Keir Starmer get to Downing Street.
New Electoral Commission figures out on Thursday will show that: Lubner gave £500,000 to Labour in the first quarter of 2023, he has given even more in the second quarter and — on his current trajectory of giving — his total support could well exceed £5mn before polling day.
That would put him alongside longstanding donor Lord David Sainsbury in the list of wealthy individuals backing Labour, and I’d expect to see quite a few other names appearing in the official list of party donations this week.
Lubner has largely avoided the media throughout his business career but — given that his name is about to hit the headlines — he decided to give one interview to explain what is motivating him. I spoke to him last Friday and it’s an interesting tale.
Now try this
I can’t match Stephen’s polymath range of recommendations — although stand by tomorrow for my take on the exceptional new film Reality — but I will give a plug to one of the underestimated pleasures of the summer in England.
On Friday I bombed down the A303 to Taunton to watch Somerset thrash Middlesex in the T20 Vitality Blast. Even non-cricket lovers will find something to enjoy from this microform of the game, usually played at weekends or after work.
Grab a beer (or cider, obviously, in the case of Somerset), watch out for sixes peppering the crowd, and enjoy the spectacle. I can also recommend the Oval (if you can get tickets) for a rowdy night in South London, and Edgbaston in Birmingham. But avoid staid old Lords.
Incidentally Somerset, the Arsenal of the county cricket world, are standing on the edge of greatness in this year’s T20, having won their first six games. What could possibly go wrong?
Top stories today
Yousaf waylaid in bid to address low rape conviction rate | Humza Yousaf is standing firm over government plans to introduce juryless rape trials after lawyers in Scotland threatened to boycott the proposal.
CBI challenger steps up | The CBI business lobby group was hit with a new threat to its future yesterday as its rival, the British Chambers of Commerce, created a new grouping in a bold move to become the voice of the UK’s most prominent companies.
Cabinet Office chides Boris Johnson over WhatsApp disclosure | Johnson has been warned by Whitehall that he could lose publicly funded legal support if he undermines the government’s position on the Covid-19 inquiry.
AI ‘productivity revolution’ will take time to pay off | A boom in generative artificial intelligence and pandemic-induced workplace shifts will unleash a new era of faster productivity growth across the rich world, economists say, though it could take a decade or more for advanced economies to reap the full benefits.
Argy-bargy over Labour’s green energy plan | Gary Smith, general secretary of the GMB, joined Unite’s Sharon Graham yesterday in criticising Keir Starmer’s pledge to ban new licences for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea (here’s the clip from Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday), saying Labour had been “naive”. Meanwhile, the Guardian’s Kiran Stacey was first to report Starmer’s plan has the backing of an eclectic range of high-profile groups, including environmental campaigners, and even the Women’s Institute.