“SACKED by Johnson on the orders of Trump” is how one newspaper has described the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador to Washington.
In fact the resignation was probably inevitable from the moment his comments about the Trump administration were leaked to the Press.
But Boris Johnson’s deplorable failure, in Tuesday’s televised debate, to back Darroch has resulted in contempt, both in the Foreign Office and in Parliament, for our probable next Prime Minister as well as for the person responsible for the leak.
In the leaked documents Darroch questioned whether the White House “will ever look competent”. And he warned that while Donald Trump had been “dazzled” by the pomp and ceremony of his state visit to Britain, his administration would remain self-interested and “this is still the land of America First”.
In his tweeted reactions, Trump called the ambassador “wacky”, “a very stupid guy” and a “pompous fool”. Then he disinvited him from a White House dinner and announced that he would no longer deal with him. He also criticised Mrs May for her failed Brexit negotiations. Expenditure on last month’s state visit does not now look such a good investment.
Darroch’s frank assessment of the Trump administration will have come as no surprise to Washington insiders, including former members of Trump’s staff who have expressed similar views.
He was simply doing what he was paid to do. As Lewis Lukens, deputy US Ambassador in London until January of this year, said: “He was just doing his job – and providing the government in London with his candid, honest assessment of the dynamics in Washington.”
I would expect the US ambassador in London to have reported in a similar way on the dysfunctional and inept British Government, paralysed as it is by the mess it has made of Brexit.
“The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like,” Sir Kim said in his resignation letter. An ambassador’s effectiveness depends upon access to the highest levels of government. Denied that access, the ability to promote British interests is severely constrained.
Establishing rapport with contacts in the host country’s government is an important part of any diplomat’s role. Access to the highest levels does not happen by chance. Contacts have to be cultivated over a period of time and trust established.
However responsibility for the ambassador’s resignation rests primarily with the person who leaked the documents. He or she has done the country a grave disservice. There must be a thorough investigation; if the leaker is identified, there should be disciplinary action and, if the Official Secrets Act has been breached, the full force of the law.
What was the leaker’s motivation? Sir Christopher Meyer, a former ambassador to the US, has suggested that the culprit set out “to sabotage Sir Kim” and have him replaced by “somebody more congenial”. That seems the most likely explanation.
It will be fascinating to see how a new Prime Minister deals with the fallout from Darroch’s resignation. That is likely to be Boris Johnson – despite his bumbling performance in Tuesday’s televised debate and his track record as the worst Foreign Secretary in living memory. If Darroch had any doubts about resigning, Johnson’s lack of support must have been the last straw.
Since the EU referendum, Nigel Farage and other Brexit fanatics have accused civil servants of a conspiracy to frustrate Brexit.
That is nonsense. Civil servants have continued to work in accordance with the guiding principles established by the Northcote-Trevelyan report over 150 years ago: honesty, integrity, objectivity and political impartiality. During the past difficult three years, civil servants have fulfilled their traditional role of serving the government of the day to the very best of their ability.
We do not yet know whether a new ambassador to Washington will be appointed before or after Mrs May ceases to be Prime Minister. Will it be a professional diplomat? Or a political appointee? Such appointments are not unprecedented. Examples that come to mind are Peter Jay (ambassador to Washington, 1977-79), Chris Patten (final Governor of Hong Kong, 1992-97) and Paul Boateng (High Commissioner to South Africa, 2005-2009).
In present circumstances a political appointee to Washington would be a mistake; it would send an unfortunate message to the Diplomatic Service and do nothing for morale. Now, more than ever, we need to make use of the professionalism and integrity of a civil service that is, as Darroch said in his letter of resignation, “the envy of the world”.