Sir David fires a WMD at Blair's special relationship

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The Independent Online

* Here's a story to launch a thousand conspiracy theories: our man in Washington, Sir David Manning, has decided to quit, just 18 months after his appointment.

* Here's a story to launch a thousand conspiracy theories: our man in Washington, Sir David Manning, has decided to quit, just 18 months after his appointment.

Sir David a close friend of Tony Blair, is understood to have told colleagues that he wishes to leave the diplomatic service by the end of 2006. He's yet to tell the Prime Minister of his decision.

The news will surprise commentators, since ambassadors to the US usually spend at least five years in office. It's also likely to fuel rumours that Sir David has been embarrassed by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

A Foreign Office spokesman said last night that "all personnel matters are confidential", and stressed that Manning hadn't discussed his future with Downing Street. But sources added they've already begun searching for a successor.

"He could stay for anything up to another couple of years," I'm told. "By then, he'll be 58, and, having been ambassador in Washington, wouldn't have anywhere to move on to anyway."

Either way, the PM will lose a useful ally: Manning is close to the Bush administration and speaks to Condoleezza Rice on an almost daily basis.

As documents released during the Butler report showed, he also played a key role in reassuring the US that Britain would back them, during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq.

* JENNIFER LOPEZ, whose reputation for sloppy timekeeping rivals that of Naomi Campbell, missed yesterday's UK premiere of her new film, Shall We Dance .

A few hours before the event was due to start, the well-upholstered star announced that she'd been unable to board her flight from Los Angeles, due to illness.

Despite the odd raised eyebrow, organisers of the charity bash - in aid of the tsunami appeal - were putting on a brave face.

"She's said that she's ill, and she has a doctor's note," I'm told. "But it's not just this event she's missing: she's cancelled the whole of the European press junket for the film, and, it seems, her European music tour too."

The news will, no doubt, spark yet more rumours that J-Lo is pregnant. Only time will tell if these are true.

* ZAC GOLDSMITH, left - brother of Jemima, son of the late Jimmy, and editor of The Ecologist - is patron of an intriguing new pressure group: The Countryside Against the London Olympics.

Today, its leader, Robin Page, will visit Downing Street to deliver a letter claiming London has no right to hold the 2012 Games, because of (wait for it) the Gulf War, Foot and Mouth, airport expansion, and the ban on hunting.

"Urban Britain has interfered in an intolerable and undemocratic way in the British countryside," it reads. "Rural Britain must now respond by interfering in London's grand metropolitan plans." An odd argument, but someone's got to make it.

* A FINAL word from Peter Ackroyd, whose drunken brawl jollified Sunday's premiere of the play, Spread . Pandora has obtained a copy of the great writer's letter of apology to playwright Alison Trower.

"I'm mortified and upset by my behaviour last night," it reads. "I can only claim to have drunk too much wine, and lost any sense of politeness or fair play.

"I cannot even pretend to have seen the play, so don't take my criticisms (whatever they were) to heart. They were just drunken outbursts for which I'm profoundly sorry.

"There is a good side. No enterprising work ever survived a first reading without being heckled! Think of The Rite of Spring ! If I can help you with any publicity or quotes for the play, I will be glad to do so." Words fail me.

* Victoria Beckham made news yesterday, after posing naked - save for a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes - in a fundraising book for the Elton John Aids Foundation.

She's not been the only delicate celebrity to strip off for the hardback, though. Joining her on its glossy pages will be the socialite, Tamara Beckwith.

In what she describes as "the first and last time I will ever do a full-frontal shoot," Miss Beckwith is pictured with a vacuum cleaner in the corridor of a posh hotel.

"The vacuum has been cunningly positioned to protect Tamara's modesty," says her agent. "But you can see her boobs, such as they are." The mind boggles!