Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, has blamed Donald Trump’s decision to cancel a visit to London to open the new US embassy on hostility towards the US president from prominent members of the opposition Labour party.
Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday night that he was cancelling a planned visit to London next month, saying he would not cut the ribbon on the $1.2bn embassy as it was a “bad deal” made under the Obama administration.
But Mr Trump’s explanation was contradicted by Mr Johnson, who suggested that Sadiq Khan, the capital’s mayor, and Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, had scared off the president by suggesting he would not be welcome in Britain.
“The US is the biggest single investor in the UK — yet Khan & Corbyn seem determined to put this crucial relationship at risk,” Mr Johnson tweeted. He singled out his successor as London mayor for further criticism, adding: “We will not allow US-UK relations to be endangered by some puffed up pompous popinjay in City Hall.”
Privately many British officials were relieved that Mr Trump had abandoned the visit. One Foreign Office source said: “Given the likelihood of large demonstrations, there was obviously a slight sigh of relief at the news he isn’t coming next month.”
But there was nevertheless embarrassment in London that the president was not coming. Mr Trump has yet to visit the UK since he took office and Downing Street was forced to again insist that the “special relationship” was intact.
Theresa May’s spokesman said plans for a more formal state visit would proceed, but no date has been set. Downing Street seemed relieved that Mr Trump was basing his decision on an association between the new embassy and Mr Obama — even though plans to move the mission were approved during the George W Bush administration — but was left wrongfooted when Mr Johnson publicly challenged that explanation.
A Number 10 official said: “Boris expresses himself in his own inimitable way — but we agree that any risk to the crucial US-UK relationship is not in our country’s best interest.”
Mr Trump confirmed in a late-night tweet that he would not open the embassy, which has moved from Grosvenor Square in Mayfair to Nine Elms in Wandsworth, south London.
“Reason I cancelled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars,” he said. “Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!”
But a spokesperson for the US embassy in London said on Friday evening that the Grosvenor Square building was too old to be be brought up to current security and safety standards without extensive investment. “In 2007, the [state] department developed a plan to finance a new embassy project through a property swap for existing US government property in London. This solution allowed construction of a new chancery that meets all security standards, yet used no taxpayer dollars to fund the project.”
Mr Trump enraged politicians in the UK in November when he retweeted inflammatory videos from Britain First, a far-right group, a move that Mrs May said was “wrong”.
Some MPs described Mr Trump as “fascist”, “stupid” and “racist, incompetent or unthinking”. The president has previously clashed with Mr Khan, the first Muslim mayor of western European capital, over claims that London was riddled with Islamic extremists.
Mr Khan said in November it was “increasingly clear that any official visit at all from President Trump to Britain would not be welcomed”. On Friday, he said it “seems he’s finally got that message,” adding: “His visit next month would without doubt have been met by mass peaceful protest.”
Nigel Farage, former Ukip leader and a friend of the US president, said the news was “disappointing”. Mr Trump was the “real estate guy” and would know whether the new building was good value.
Mr Farage told the BBC Today programme that Mr Khan and Mr Corbyn would have organised protests and conceded that perhaps Mr Trump “didn’t like the optics”.
The basis for Mr Trump’s assertion that the old site had been sold for “peanuts” was not immediately clear.
In 2010 the estimated $500m cost of building the new embassy was expected to be financed entirely from the sale of the Grosvenor Square site to Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company, which won approval to convert it into a luxury hotel in November 2016.
The ultimate cost of the embassy, among the world’s most expensive, had as recently as December been given as $1bn, or $200m below the figure given by Mr Trump. But William Moser, principal deputy director of the Bureau of US Overseas Buildings Operations, confirmed last month that the new building “was entirely funded from the proceeds of real estate sales”.
Ravi Govindia, leader of Wandsworth borough council and co-chair of the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership, said: “If Nine Elms was off-location yesterday, it is certainly centre stage today. The US ambassador has spoken about the pride he and his staff feel in their new embassy.
“Not only are they moving to an iconic new Zone 1 building that’s closer to Downing Street than the current embassy, they’re also are part of the £15bn transformation of this part of central London that’s bringing 20,000 new homes and 25,000 permanent jobs.
“It is also where tech giant Apple is moving its entire UK operation so it’s clearly not an ‘off-location’ for them.”
The new US embassy opens to the public next week.