Abbott says it is ‘frightening’ to hear what Tory donor Frank Hester said about her

Diane Abbott has issued a statement to ITV’s Good Morning Britain about the Frank Hester comments. In it she said:

It is frightening. I live in Hackney, I don’t drive, so I find myself, at weekends, popping on a bus or even walking places, more than most MPs.

I am a single woman and that makes me vulnerable anyway. But to hear someone talking like this is worrying.

For all of my career as an MP I have thought it important not to live in a bubble, but to mix and mingle with ordinary people. The fact that two MPs have been murdered in recent years makes talk like this all the more alarming.

I’m currently not a member of the parliamentary Labour party, but remain a member of the Labour party itself, so I am hoping for public support from Keir Starmer.

Key events

Afternoon summary

  • Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary and minister for women and equalities, has said that Frank Hester’s 2019 comments about Diane Abbott, as reported, were racist. (See 5.17pm.)

  • Children will no longer be prescribed puberty blockers at gender identity clinics, NHS England has confirmed. As PA Media reports, the government said it welcomed the “landmark decision”, adding it would help ensure care is based on evidence and is in the “best interests of the child”. Puberty blockers, which pause the physical changes of puberty such as breast development or facial hair, will now only be available to children as part of clinical research trials.


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Maria Caulfield, the health minister, has also said that Frank Hester’s comments were racist if he said what was reported, the BBC’s Ewan Murrie says.

Comments allegedly made by Frank Hester about Diane Abbott were racist, says health minister Maria Caulfield. She told the BBC: “I personally do find [the alleged remarks] racist. It’s not something that we should be… excusing in anyway.”

— Ewan Murrie (@emurrie91) March 12, 2024

Comments allegedly made by Frank Hester about Diane Abbott were racist, says health minister Maria Caulfield. She told the BBC: “I personally do find [the alleged remarks] racist. It’s not something that we should be… excusing in anyway.”

Sunak talks to Modi about last-ditch attempts to secure trade deal with India before election

Eleni Courea

Rishi Sunak held a call with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi about progress in talks over a free trade agreement this afternoon.

Modi tweeted that he “had a good conversation” with Sunak and said the pair reiterated their commitment to the “early conclusion” of a deal. Two sources have told the Guardian that it was Sunak who requested the call.

Had a good conversation with PM @RishiSunak. We reaffirmed our commitment to further strengthen the bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and work for early conclusion of a mutually beneficial Free Trade Agreement.

— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 12, 2024

Time is running out for a deal to be agreed before India’s election campaign formally begins, at which point the talks will be paused. The Indian election is expected to take place in April or May, with the exact date due to be confirmed as soon as this week.

A British negotiating team flew to India last week in a last-ditch attempt to finalise the deal this spring. If this does not happen, the final pre-UK election window is likely to be the summer.

Sunak’s spokesperson said:

The leaders welcomed the thriving partnership between the UK and India and discussed recent progress on free trade agreement negotiations. They agreed on the importance of securing a historic and comprehensive deal that benefits both countries.

The prime minister reiterated the importance of reaching an ambitious outcome on goods and services and they agreed to remain in close contact and looked forward to further progress on trade talks.

Earlier this week India announced a $100 billion free trade deal with the European Free Trade Association bloc of non-EU nations – Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

This is not the first time Kemi Badenoch has used social media to outflank No 10 with a line on the story of the day. A month ago, after Rishi Sunak was facing criticism form Keir Starmer for a crass joke about trans people during PMQs when the mother of Brianna Ghey was in parliament, Badenoch hit back at Starmer aggressively – while No 10 reportedly was dithering over whether or not to apologise.

In the Ghey case, Badenoch was leaning into an “anti-woke” position. Today she is being more “pro-woke” than No 10. (See 5.17pm.) But in both cases she came out with a more robust line than what was on offer from Downing Street, and in both cases she may have been better aligned with Tory members.

As minister for women and equalities, Badenoch has grounds for speaking out on these issues. But these interventions will also reinforce the impression that she is on maneouvres ahead of a future leadership contest.

Kemi Badenoch. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

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Kemi Badenoch says Hester’s comments about Abbott ‘as reported’ were racist – but also urges forgiveness

Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary and minister for women and equalities, has said that Frank Hester’s 2019 comments about Diane Abbott, as reported, were racist. She posted these messages on X.

Hester’s 2019 comments, as reported, were racist. I welcome his apology.

Abbott and I disagree on a lot. But the idea of linking criticism of her, to being a black woman is appalling.

It’s never acceptable to conflate someone’s views with the colour of their skin…(1/2)

— Kemi Badenoch (@KemiBadenoch) March 12, 2024

Hester’s 2019 comments, as reported, were racist. I welcome his apology.

Abbott and I disagree on a lot. But the idea of linking criticism of her, to being a black woman is appalling.

It’s never acceptable to conflate someone’s views with the colour of their skin…(1/2)

MPs have a difficult job balancing multiple interests -often under threats of intimidation as we saw recently in parliament.

Some people make flippant comments without thinking of this context.

This is why there needs to be space for forgiveness where there is contrition (2/2)

This goes beyond what No 10 was saying about Hester’s comments this morning, although Badenoch’s “as reported” line implies she is leaving open the option that Hester did not use the words reported.

Hester has not denied using the words reported by the Guardian. But his spokesperson has told the BBC that comments he has given saying he was rude about Abbott, but not racist, should not be taken as confirmation that he did use the words reported.

Humza Yousaf says if Tories had ‘any moral principle’ they would return Hester’s £10m

Humza Yousaf, the SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister, has described Frank Hester’s comments about Diane Abbott as not just “racist” and “sexist”, but were also “inciting hatred”.

Speaking at an event at the LSE in London today, he said:

If the Conservative party had any moral principle, then they would return every single penny and tell him where his money should go – that is my honest view.

First and foremost, can I say that I stand in full solidarity with Diane Abbott – she has been a trailblazer for many years.

We may have our differences on particular issues, but I stand full square behind and alongside Diane Abbott.

Yousaf was giving a speech in which he claimed that, without Brexit, Scotland would have £1.6bn more to spend on public services than it does now.

Hester has issued a statement saying he accepts he was “rude” about Abbott in a private meeting, but that “his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”. He also says he views racism as “a poison that has no place in public life”. (See 3.58pm.)

Humza Yousaf speaking at the LSE today. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

MPs fail in bid to trigger Commons privileges inquiry into claim Starmer coerced Hoyle ahead of Gaza vote

The office of the Commons speaker has rejected calls for an investigation into claims that Keir Starmer exerted undue pressure on Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the speaker, to get him to allow a vote on Labour’s motion on Gaza, Aubrey Allegretti from the Times reports.

The decision was taken by the three Commons deputy speakers – Dame Eleanor Laing, Dame Rosie Winterton and Nigel Evans – because Hoyle recused himself, being personally involved in the matter.

In a letter to Sir Graham Brady, the Conservative chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Owen Thompson, the SNP chief whip, and Liz Saville Roberts, the Plaid Cymru leader at Westminster, the three deputy speakers said there was no precedent of an inquiry of this kind.

The Commons privileges committee investigates allegations about people interfering improperly with the work of MPs, and this would cover the use of threats. After Hoyle announced that he would ignore parliamentary rules to allow a vote on a Labour amendment to the SNP motion on Gaza, it was alleged that Starmer had used threats to obtain this outcome – perhaps by saying Labour MPs would vote Hoyle out of office in future if he did not comply.

Starmer strongly rejected this claim, for which there is no substantial evidence. Labour says he sought to persuade Hoyle to allow the vote by saying MPs would face more threats from people with militant views on the Gaza issue if it did not go ahead.

In their letter the three deputy speakers say the speaker must be allowed to consult MPs in confidence and that a privileges committee inquiry into his conversation with Starmer would undermine this principle.

They also say there is no precedent of launching an inquiry of this kind just on the basis of unsubstantiated claims about what was said at a private meeting.

Allegretti has published a letter from the three deputy speakers explaining their decision here.


All three Commons deputy speakers unanimously rule that no vote will be allowed on referring Keir Starmer to privileges committee over the Gaza ceasefire debate.

Tory, SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs had requested an investigation alleging the Labour leader pressured him to…

— Aubrey Allegretti (@breeallegretti) March 12, 2024

Hester claims he views racism as ‘a poison that has no place in public life’

The Tory donor Frank Hester has issued a fresh statement on X related to the controversy generated by the Guardian story about what he said about Diane Abbott. In it he says he views racism as “a poison that has no place in public life”.

Having quoted me accurately saying “I abhor racism” @guardian newspaper has just asked me to confirm that I made these following remarks at the same meeting 5 years ago that they reported on yesterday. They claim that I told staff:

“For me, racism is a hatred and a fear of the…

— Frank Hester OBE (@HesterObe) March 12, 2024

Having quoted me accurately saying “I abhor racism” @guardian newspaper has just asked me to confirm that I made these following remarks at the same meeting 5 years ago that they reported on yesterday. They claim that I told staff:

“For me, racism is a hatred and a fear of the other. For me, it is exactly the same as homophobia – it’s not limited to the colour of your skin, it is not limited to religion, it can just be the country next door. It can be northerners and southerners, which we have here.”

I can confirm that this is an accurate reflection of my view that hatred of others based on race, religion, gender, sexuality or geography is odious and disgusting and that racism – in particular – is a poison that has no place in public life.

The UK benefits immensely from the rich diversity of people – like my parents – who had roots in another land, religion and culture. We should celebrate those differences which have made us the world’s most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith democracy. And we should have the confidence to discuss our differences openly and even playfully without seeking to cause offence.

Hester also published a statement about the story on X yesterday afternoon, after the Guardian published its initial report about him.


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Experts claim Coutinho putting zero carbon energy target at risk by allowing new gas-fired power stations

Claire Coutinho, the energy secretary, has given a speech today to announce that the government will support the construction of new gas-fired power stations. Our preview story by Alex Lawson is here, the full tet of the speech is here, and here is a passage from the speech where Coutinho says this policy does not breach the UK’s net zero commitments.

There are two reasons why backing gas is not at odds with our world-leading net zero commitments.

First, we expect all new gas power stations to be built net zero ready.

That means companies must build power plants which are ready to connect to carbon capture technology or that can be changed to burn hydrogen instead of gas …

Second, these gas power plants will run less frequently as unabated as we build more and more low-carbon generation and long-term storage.

But while we are bringing other flexible sources online, we won’t take any risks.

In the past six months we have been accused of rolling back on our net zero plans.

So let me tackle this head-on: Britain is the poster child for net zero.

We’ve halved our greenhouse gas emissions since 1990.

Out of the top 20 largest economies in the world, nobody has done more than us.

Yet many experts and campaigners do not accept this analysis.

Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said:

This latest announcement must be seen for what it is – concessions to the gas lobby. It demonstrates the stranglehold that the fossil fuel industry still has on the government’s decision making, and ministers’ incompetence in actually delivering the policies they have promised.

Coutinho has failed to outline a plan to control gas plant emissions after 2035, yet the government says they want a zero carbon power system by the same date. Something isn’t quite adding up.

Stuart Haszeldine, professor of carbon capture and storage at Edinburgh University, said:

The UK has a commitment to zero carbon electricity by 2035 – that will now fail …

It is crazy to build a new generation of gas-fuelled power plants, with no pipeline or shipping connections linking to CO2 storage. This is not just giving up global leadership, this is the UK going backwards to a position of leading to make climate change happen.

And Prof Jim Watson, head of the Institute for Sustainable Resources, at University College London (UCL), said:

Building new power plants fuelled by ‘natural gas’ is the wrong approach to balancing supply and demand in a decarbonised power sector. The UK already has a large number of such plants.

Instead, the focus should be on retrofitting some of the newer plants to run green hydrogen (produced by renewables), or fitting them with carbon capture and storage technologies. Both options are technically possible now.

The Science Media Centre has published a wider range of reaction from academics here.

Claire Coutinho speaking at Chatham House today. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Labour says plan to release prisoners up to two months early will generate ‘shockwaves and deep concern’

A move to potentially allow prisoners to shave two months off their jail time is the “most drastic form of early release” ever witnessed in England and Wales, according to Labour.

As PA Media reports, Alex Chalk, the justice secretary, announced last night an extension to the end of custody supervised licence (ECSL) scheme, taking it from 18 days to a maximum of 60 days in a bid to ease overcrowding pressures in prisons. PA says:

The government has insisted the measure will be temporary and only apply to so-called “low-level offenders”.

Chalk made the announcement via a written ministerial statement to parliament after 8pm, a situation Labour branded “plainly inadequate given the gravity of the situation”, before attending the Commons in person to update MPs this afternoon.

Shabana Mahmood, the shadow justice secretary, said the extension was “unprecedented”.

Replying to Chalk’s statement in the Commons, she said: “Let us be in no doubt, this is the most drastic form of early release for prisoners that this country has ever seen, and in his 11-page and 10-minute long statement today, it merited one paragraph.

“This is a measure which will cause shockwaves and deep concern across our country, and the secretary of state seems to think a quiet written ministerial statement published late last night and one paragraph today is good enough — it is not.”

The Labour MP posed a number of questions for her opposite number, including how many people had so far been released via the scheme, what prisons are making use of it and whether convicted domestic abusers and stalkers are eligible under its terms.

Mahmood added: “The government has refused all requests to be transparent about the scale and the impact of this scheme, this is no way to run the criminal justice system, or indeed the country.”

Chalk did not provide answers to her questions but assured that the government would take “every step to protect the public”.

Downing Street said the scheme would be temporary but refused to set a deadline for when it would be wound down.

Asked how long it could be in place, the prime minister’s spokesperson said: “I can’t offer a projection but it is very clearly a temporary measure. It is up to governors to use it operationally, depending on their circumstances.”

According to MoJ figures, the prison population stood at 88,220 as of 8 March. The operational capacity is a little over 89,000.

Earlier I said the Green party was calling for the £10m given by Frank Hester to the Tories to be returned. Sorry, that was wrong. The Greens are saying the Tories should donate it to groups campaigning against racism and domestic violence. I have updated the post at 12pm with the full quote.


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Chakrabarti says she hopes Abbott’s record as trailblazer for black politicians will help lead to restoration of Labour whip

Diane Abbott is currently suspended from the parliamentary Labour party because of a letter she wrote to the Observer that suggested that antisemitism wasn’t as serious as the racism suffered by black people, and that it was more akin to prejudice.

Asked if Abbott should be reinstated, Shami Chakrabarti told the World at One that she hoped Keir Starmer’s acknowledgment today that Abbott has been a “trailblazer” (see 10.13am) might help lead to her having the whip restored. Chakrabarti said:

I don’t want to interfere in discussions that [Abbott] must have with the labour whips.

But I listened very carefully to Keir Starmer, our leader, and what he said about Diana the trailblazer, and what she’s had to put up with.

I hope that that will be taken into account alongside her very prompt and sincere apologies for that letter.


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Labour’s Shami Chakrabarti tells Tories that refusing to describe racism as racism ‘is somehow licensing it’

Shami Chakrabarti, the Labour peer who is a friend of Diane Abbott, was interviewed about the Frank Hester comments on the World at One and she issued a direct appeal to Rishi Sunak to address the problem properly.

  • Chakrabarti said she was “horrified” that ministers were refusing to describe the Hester remarks as racist. If they refused to call this out, they were condoning the comments, she implied. She said:

Having heard the interviews of the ministers, I’m just completely horrified that they wouldn’t call this for what it is. And I think if you don’t call it at that level, you’re somehow licensing it.

If they say that this gentleman didn’t make the remarks that I’m reading right now in the Guardian in quote marks, if he didn’t make those remarks, then that can be said.

But if he did make those remarks, that is proper, misogynistic, race hate speech. And that should not be tolerated anywhere, and not in the highest echelons of the British Conservative party, and not from someone who’s brought himself £10m’s worth of influence in our country, and in government.

I say to the prime minister, our first non white prime minister, please, please do something about this. You stood last week on the steps of Downing Street and you said you wanted to tackle extremism. We’ve got [Michael] Gove who’s going to put out some new, broad definition of extremism. There’s lots of divisive politics being played here.

And yet they won’t call out what’s happening in their own party at the highest echelons …

This kind of comment made by a very, very significant major donor to the party of government is terrifying. This is not where I thought our wonderful country would be nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century.

Mr Sunak needs to put his own house in order before he starts lecturing anybody else, whether protesters or anybody else, about extremism.

  • She said that the level of abuse Abbott has suffered is “phenomonal”. As evidence, she cited an Amnesty International report from 2017 saying Abbott experience more online abuse than anyone else in parliament.

She’s anxious and she’s upset but, as she always does, she’s putting a brave face on and trying not to worry her friends. But I have to say my heart is pounding, and I’m really upset and anxious on her behalf.

Hester has issued a statement saying he accepts he was “rude” about Abbott in a private meeting, but that “his criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

The BBC reports that a spokesperson for Hester says this should not be read as confirmation that Hester said the words attributed to him. But Hester has not denied saying those words either.

Shami Chakrabarti. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

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Sunak tells cabinet ‘the plan is working’ – 24 hours after Tory rightwingers insist that message no longer true

After Lee Anderson resigned yesterday, the New Conservatives, a group of rightwing backbench MPs, issued a lengthy statement saying this move confirmed that Tory voters feel let down by the government. It also said government messaging was now increasingly implausible. It said:

Our poll numbers show what the public think of our record since 2019. We cannot pretend any longer that ‘the plan is working’. We need to change course urgently.

At No 10, they either did not get the message, or are ignoring it. Downing Street has sent out its readout from this morning’s cabinet meeting and it shows that Rishi Sunak remains very committed to the line that his plan is working. A No 10 spokesperson said:

The prime minister asked the work and pensions secretary for an update on today’s labour market statistics. He said the stats showed the plan is working, with payroll employment at a record high, real wages growing for seven months in a row, and our inactivity rate is below the US, France, and Italy.

The prime minister turned to an update on action to cut crime and make our streets safer. The prime minister said our crackdown on crime and anti-social behaviour is working, with violent and neighbourhood crime halved since 2010. He added that to support this we are building 20,000 new prison places, the largest programme since the Victorian age, which he funded as chancellor.

According to the No 10 readout, James Cleverly, the home secretary, also told cabinet that police recruitment was up, overall crime was down, and more foreign offenders were being deported. And Alex Chalk, the justice secretary, told colleagues that reoffending by former prisoners was down from 31% in 2010 to 25%. That was as a result of “work to make sure prisoners released from prison are not left without a place to stay or a job, with the number offenders in work six months after leaving prison doubling in the last year”, No 10 said.

Hester ‘not a racist’, says friend and former Tory treasurer Lord Marland

Lord Marland, a businessman and former Conservative party treasurer, describes himself as a friend of Frank Hester. In an interview with LBC, he said that he did not think Hester was racist. He said:

I know Frank Hester as it turns out and the first question I ask myself is ‘is he a racist’? And the Frank Hester I know isn’t.

He’s an international businessman, he travels widely overseas – he does a lot of a business in Jamacia, he does business in Malaysia, in Bangladesh – so he’s not a racist.

He made some unfortunate remarks that do sound racist, and quite rightly he’s apologised for them. That’s my view on the subject. My overriding thing is that he’s not a racist.

Asked if he thought the Conservative party should return the £10m it received from Hester, Marland said it was not for him to say.

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