Richard Branson: There should be a European army - and we should privatise Radio 1

A preview of David Miliband's interview with the Virgin boss.

In this week’s NS Interview, the Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson, tells David Miliband that Europe should have a single army:

“Governments worldwide are spending more than they’re making. So, if you take the army, air force and navy, it would seem to make great sense for us to try to work as one in Europe. We’d end up having a much more powerful army, maybe an air force to try to defend the continent as a whole, and would reduce cost dramatically by working with the rest of Europe. I suspect we will end up going to war less often because we will know that Europe is that much stronger when it comes to defence and we will save a lot of money.”

Branson also calls for the privatisation of BBC Radio 1 as part of looking into “every single aspect” for saving money in Britain:

“As much as it’s great to have the BBC as a public-service operator, if you privatised Radio 1, gave it strict remits, put the money back into the rest of the BBC, that would help fund the public-service aspect of the BBC and it would make sense.”

Asked by Miliband about the crisis of culture in banking, Branson reveals that he tax-dodged when he was younger:

“I learned my lesson when I was 21 years old when I had a rap on my knuckles for trying to save some money on exporting some records and not paying my taxes properly. And I decided that I wanted to sleep well at night."

Businesses would be foolhardy, says Branson, to not hire tax lawyers:

“Our English companies will pay British taxes, our overseas companies will pay overseas taxes and lawyers will tell us how to mitigate taxes as much as possible. Every company will take that kind of advice. And not to take that advice leaves you uncompetitive.”

Richard Branson in Las Vegas. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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