John Humphrys - The Darroch Affair: Who Comes Out Well?

July 11, 2019, 8:08 AM GMT+0

As the man didn’t quite say, a few days can be a long time in diplomacy. Less than a week ago, Sir Kim Darroch was secure in his position at the top of Britain’s Diplomatic Service, as Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the United States of America. Retirement after a long and often arduous career beckoned at the end of the year. Then, on Wednesday, through no fault of his own, he was forced to resign. So who was to blame? Or, to put it another way, who, in this sorry affair, has come up smelling of roses, and who has not?

Sir Kim’s rapid downfall began with the publication in last Sunday’s Mail on Sunday of a leaked cache of confidential emails sent by the ambassador and his staff to London over the last couple of years. In them Sir Kim described President Trump and his administration as ‘inept’, ‘dysfunctional’ and much else. He said the Trump government had been ‘dogged from day one by stories of vicious infighting and chaos’ and that these were mostly true. He painted a picture of the President himself as personally insecure and asked the question whether the administration ‘will ever look competent’. His answer was: ‘We don’t really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction-riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.’

Suffice it to say that this is not the sort of language a diplomat would choose to use in public, but is exactly the frank sort of expression that is encouraged when a government wants confidentially to know from its diplomats abroad what their assessment is of what is going on in the country in which they serve. The emails had most certainly not been intended for publication.

The British government reacted with outrage and alarm. The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was quick to say that these were not the views of the government itself whilst robustly defending Sir Kim for doing his job in privately conveying his own assessment of the Trump administration. Most of all, the entire government said, the leak itself was utterly deplorable, not only for exposing Sir Kim but in making it all the more difficult for other diplomats to do their job properly in future for fear of being exposed themselves. An immediate leak inquiry was set up, with theories about the likely culprit ranging from hostile foreign governments anxious to disrupt the close relation between Britain and America, to Brexit-related conspirators and even those trying to help the leadership campaign of Boris Johnson. At the time of writing, no culprit had been apprehended.

Faced with such incontrovertible evidence of what the British ambassador thought about the Washington administration, most previous American presidents would either have ignored it (at least in public) or laughed it off. But Donald Trump is not an ordinary American president. He soon turned to the twittersphere, first of all saying that Sir Kim ‘is not well liked or well thought of within the US’ adding that the White House would no longer deal with him. Then he went further. He tweeted: ‘The wacky Ambassador that the UK foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy… I don’t know the Ambassador but have been told he is a pompous fool’.

From the moment he launched his political career, Donald Trump has been well known for brushing aside civility and being ready, even eager, to pour abuse, often very personal, on his political opponents and anyone else who dared to cross his path. He also became known for the fickleness of his opinions: North Korea’s Kim Jong-un turned from being President Trump’s ‘little rocket man’ to being his best chum in a matter of months. But the abuse poured on Sir Kim was the first occasion when the President had directed his bile against the ambassador of a close ally, and someone not in a position to answer back.

He then got into his stride and tweeted disobliging remarks about the Prime Minister herself. He said that Sir Kim ‘should speak to his country, and Prime Minister May, about their failed Brexit negotiation, and not be upset with my criticism of how badly it was handled. I told Theresa May how to do that deal, but she went her own foolish way – was unable to get it done. A disaster!’

The Prime Minister’s response was unequivocally to come to Sir Kim’s defence. So too did her predecessor in Downing Street, Sir John Major and the former Tory leader and ex-foreign secretary, Lord Hague, both of whom said that loyalty was a two-way street and that ministers must always defend civil servants when they are conscientiously carrying out the orders those ministers have given them. There should be no question of Sir Kim not seeing out his term as ambassador in Washington and that it was for the British government, not any foreign government, however close an ally, to decide who should and who should not be its representative abroad.

The only prominent British politician to call for Sir Kim to go was Nigel Farage, the Brexit party leader, and friend of President Trump, who said Sir Kim was ‘the wrong person to be the British ambassador – totally opposed to the Trump doctrine’. Mr Trump is on record as saying he’d welcome Mr Farage as the British ambassador even though the Brexit Party leader has said he doesn’t want the job.

Most interesting, however, was the response during their televised debate on Tuesday evening of the two remaining candidates to become Conservative Party leader and prime minister at the end of the month. Jeremy Hunt was forthright in saying that if he entered No 10 he would insist Sir Kim see out the rest of his time in Washington, notwithstanding the obvious difficulties of his remaining in his post. But Boris Johnson refused to say he would keep him on.

It was this failure of the likely next prime minister to give him his full backing that is thought to have persuaded Sir Kim to resign of his own accord. In a statement on Wednesday he said: ‘The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like. Although my posting is not due to end until the end of this year, I believe in the current circumstances the responsible course is to allow the appointment of a new ambassador.’

The Prime Minister said his resignation was a ‘matter of deep regret’ and paid fulsome tribute to his long career that included stints as Britain’s representative in Brussels and as the country’s national security adviser. It will presumably be up to Mrs May’s successor to appoint the next ambassador to Washington. It may also be that successor in Downing Street who first learns the identity of the person who leaked the emails, if indeed such a discovery is ever made.

So how has everyone come out of all this? It is easiest, first of all, to identify those who have behaved incontrovertibly properly and those who have not. Almost no one disputes that Sir Kim did nothing wrong whatsoever and that the leaked emails show that he was doing exactly the job he was asked to do, his resignation is likely to be regarded widely as responsible and honourable. Equally no one would seriously dispute that the leaker was wholly in the wrong, not least because the leak will make private diplomatic candour so much less likely in the future.

Then there is the category of those for whom the balance between right and wrong in their behaviour would not be contested by many. Few would dispute that Theresa May and her foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, behaved as they should, defending their ambassador notwithstanding the difficulties that the leaking of his emails will cause in relations between Britain and America. Equally few would defend President Trump’s boorish response.

But perhaps the most interesting case to judge is the behaviour of the former foreign secretary and likely next prime minister, Boris Johnson. His failure to fully back Sir Kim in the debate on Tuesday evening, thought to be the reason the ambassador resigned, has been widely condemned. Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs committee, pointedly remarked: ‘Leaders stand up for their men.’ And Sir Alan Duncan, a senior Foreign Office minister (and Hunt supporter), accused Mr Johnson of ‘contemptible negligence’, adding: ‘He’s basically thrown this fantastic diplomat under a bus to serve his own political interests’. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said that Mr Johnson’s behaviour showed that, as prime minister, he wouldn’t stand up to Donald Trump.

Mr Johnson’s supporters, however, argue that if he is indeed to become Britain’s next prime minister, it is more important that he should have regard to Downing Street’s future relationship with the White House than to the career of a single diplomat.

So what should we make of the Darroch affair? Who has behaved well and who badly? Do you think there is conspiracy behind the leaking of the emails? And do you think the affair bears any light or not on the suitability of Boris Johnson to become prime minister?

Let us know what you think.