Johnson has thrown Darroch under the bus, say top Tories
Boris Johnson is under mounting pressure over his role in Sir Kim Darroch’s resignation as British ambassador to Washington, with critics accusing the likely next prime minister of “throwing him under the bus”.
In a shock move that prompted the senior civil servant at the Foreign Office to call an all-staff meeting to reassure “shaken” diplomats, Darroch said he could no longer continue in the role after a leak of official cables in which he criticised Donald Trump.
The Guardian understands that he concluded he could not go on after he watched Tuesday’s Conservative leadership TV debate, where Johnson repeatedly dodged questions about whether he would sack the ambassador if he became prime minister.
Downing Street is so uncomfortable with the outcome that Theresa May is understood to be considering appointing a new ambassador in her last week as prime minister – upending standard protocol amid concerns that Johnson could seek to make a political appointment in the hope of pleasing Trump.
Amid a consensus that Johnson’s refusal to back Darroch had made the diplomat’s position untenable, senior Conservative MPs described the leadership contender’s conduct as “unedifying” and “contemptible”. Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, demanded: “If you do not support those you put into very difficult positions, what do you think is going to happen?”
In language that will be viewed as an implicit criticism of Johnson, May told MPs: “I hope the house will reflect on the importance of defending our values and principles, particularly when they are under pressure.”
It is understood that Johnson, who worked with Darroch as foreign secretary, later spoke to him to express his “regret” at his resignation. Asked why he had not been more supportive, he insisted he
‘It was contemptible negligence for someone who wants to lead the country’ Sir Alan Duncan Foreign Office minister
had backed Darroch and said it was “wrong to drag civil servants into the public arena”.
Meanwhile, a renewed focus also fell on the identity of the leaker, with the Foreign Office permanent undersecretary, Sir Simon McDonald, telling MPs: “We will pursue the culprit with all the means at our disposal. The leaker is guilty of the worst breach of trust in our service in my career.”
Asked whether the entire establishment would be expected to support Darroch, he said the Foreign Office had noted with gratitude the support given by May and the foreign secretary.
While the ambassador’s decision to resign brought the immediate crisis to an end, it sparked a new round of recrimination in the UK and fears that the transatlantic diplomatic calculus could have permanently shifted, as:
• No 10 said that discussions had begun with police over an investigation into the source of the leak.
• Amid fears of more leaks, the foreign affairs select committee heard inquiries would focus on a set of highly sensitive emails sent to as few as five.
• Trump did not immediately comment, but a senior official said the move was “probably the right course”.
Darroch will stay in the role until a new ambassador is appointed – which could be imminently if May pre-empts her successor. A government source said she was expected to come to a decision within 24 hours.
McDonald told the foreign affairs committee: “People are shaken by what has happened and there is a reason why I have asked to see all my colleagues. The basis on which we have worked all our careers suddenly feels challenged.” He said the episode was a personal tragedy for Darroch.
After Johnson praised Darroch’s record, Sir Alan Duncan, a Foreign Office minister, called the comments “insincere guff”. “For someone who wants to lead, let alone unite, the country, that was contemptible negligence on his part,” Duncan told the BBC. “He has basically thrown this fantastic diplomat under the bus to serve his own personal interests.”
The Tory MP Sir Patrick McLoughlin agreed, saying: “It is unedifying to see someone who wants to be prime minister failing to stand up for hard working civil servants, who have done nothing wrong, under attack from foreign governments. Leadership involves standing up for your team.”
Addressing MPs, May said she had told Darroch his resignation was “a matter of great regret”. Jeremy Corbyn called his treatment “beyond unfair”.
The criticism of Johnson was based on his language in Tuesday’s debate, when he refused to back Darroch even as his rival, the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said he would expect the ambassador to stay in post until his planned retirement.
At the committee hearing, McDonald said he knew of no precedent where a friendly power had refused to cooperate with a British ambassador. Asked about the impact on transatlantic relations he said: “It is too soon to have a complete or authoritative judgment. Nothing like this has ever happened. There must be consequences.” He later insisted the special relationship could survive any individual squall.
There was no immediate comment from Trump, but the vice-president Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, said the move was “probably the right course”. A state department spokeswoman said: “The United States and the United Kingdom share a bond that is bigger than any individual, and we look forward to continuing that partnership. We remain committed to the US-UK special relationship and our shared global agenda.”
‘Leadership involves standing up for your team’ Sir Patrick McLoughlin Tory MP on Boris Johnson
The resignation of Sir Kim Darroch followed the failure of the likely next prime minister, Boris Johnson, to say he supported him staying in post – despite being given repeated chances to do so during his TV debate on Tuesday night with Jeremy Hunt. As the current Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan put it, by six times refusing to back the ambassador, Johnson had thrown him under a bus.
Without the backing of the US president or his future boss, Darroch naturally concluded he had no future as an interlocutor between London and Washington. He realised, in the words of a friend who spoke to the Guardian, that Johnson had left him no option.
There is now a feeling of shock and contempt across the Foreign Office and in parliament – not just at the leaker and Trump, but also at Johnson. Whatever sanctimonious expressions of regret the Conservative leadership candidate mouths, and however much he blames the leaker, the Foreign Office knows he effectively sacked Darroch, believing he was carrying out the orders of the president.
Strenuous efforts were made in London to remind Darroch he had the backing of the current prime minister, Theresa May, as well as the current foreign secretary, Hunt. But Darroch, keenly aware of the importance of the special relationship, something to which his career had been dedicated, decided he could not afford to become an obstacle to its continuance.
His resignation means the malicious leaker has got his or her way. It was pretty clear from the outset that the political purpose of the leak was to get Darroch removed, and replaced by a true Brexiter of the kind that Nigel Farage, and now apparently Johnson, believes is necessary if the UK is to extract maximum political and economic value from Brexit.
It was also clear that, despite the Foreign Office’s protestations, Trump was determined to blackball Darroch. The ambassador excluded himself from a meeting between the trade secretary, Liam Fox, and Ivanka Trump to avoid any embarrassment for the president’s daughter. But he found himself
Sir Kim Darroch earned the post of UK ambassador to the United States after serving as a close adviser to the governments of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
Tall and gregarious, he was nicknamed “Kimbo” at the Foreign Office, where he had begun his civil service career in 1977 and climbed the ranks of diplomacy with postings from Japan to Italy.
He entered the public eye when he was frequently to be seen at Cameron’s side as his national security adviser from 2012 to 2015, joining him on trips to warzones and chairing meetings on crises from Russian aggression in Ukraine to the collapse of the Libyan government.
But it was his roles prior to that, as Blair’s top adviser on Europe and the permanent representative to the EU under Brown, that led to him being vilified by Conservative Brexit supporters, who regard him as an arch Europhile.
Darroch, who grew up on a council estate and won a scholarship to the fee-paying Abingdon School, has been described by those who know him as urbane and an accomplished host. When he went to the White House soon after Donald Trump was inaugurated, according to Politico, the US president told Darroch he had seen him on Fox News and told him: “You’re going to be a TV star!”
His soirees at the ambassador’s residence were events to see and be seen at – especially for members of the Trump administration. With an Andy Warhol screenprint of the Queen behind him, Darroch would make toasts at such events with plenty of quips. At one in 2017 he observed: “As you can imagine, my first year here as ambassador has been a dull old time.”
However, he was never particularly in favour with Trump himself, who publicly suggested that the then-Ukip leader Nigel Farage should be May’s representative, forcing her spokesman to clarify: “There is no vacancy. We have an excellent ambassador in Sir Kim Darroch.” Even so, he could never have imagined that his distinguished career would end with the US president publicly calling him “a very stupid guy”, “wacky” and a “pompous fool”. struck off the dinner guest list for the visit of the emir of Qatar, and a second meeting between Fox and Wilbur Ross, the US trade secretary did not go ahead.
Darroch spent a restless night pondering whether to quit, or try to soldier on until he was due to retire at the end of the year.
By the time Darroch was reached on the phone very early yesterday morning by Sir Simon McDonald, the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, it was clear to McDonald that the ambassador had made up his mind. Darroch had seen a recording of Johnson’s failure to back him in the TV debate, but according to McDonald, the ambassador felt so long as he stayed in Washington he and his family would be a target.
An ambassador can acquire a personal profile, but they should not become the story or see their views unmoored from the government they represent. Darroch could also sense that a wounded Trump meant to carry out the threat to ostracise him. A diplomat is by profession the ultimate networker, and cannot continue if the lines of communication are cut. Those were all cogent reasons to resign.
Johnson’s decision not to defend him, in the manner of Hunt, was a deliberate act of sabotage. His explanation that if he had defended him, he would have unfairly dragged Darroch into politics is bogus. Johnson chose to betray him because he regards his relationship with Trump as critical to the success of Brexit, and he simply could not afford to start his premiership with a standoff with the US over an emissary for whom he anyway had little sympathy.
Barring a daring pre-emptive appointment by May designed to thwart Johnson, the chances now rise that an external political
appointment of the kind advocated by Farage will now be made.
It is not unprecedented. But the loss of Washington, for instance to a Brexit businessman, would be a blow to the prestige of the diplomatic service, and represent a further sign that in these riven times the concept of a neutral civil service is harder to protect.
Diplomatic telegrams in future will all be a bit more grey and circulated to fewer pairs of eyes. Those populist Brexiters that blame the disappointments in their cause on treacherous civil servants will also feel they have claimed a scalp.
But this episode possibly foretells something about the nature of the special relationship under Trump and Johnson. By putting all his chips on Trump, and going for the kind of hard Brexit the president believes is available, Johnson clearly hopes he will get the generous and quick free trade deal with the US. Political goodwill is the key to unlocking this.
Yet the last three days has also shown a man who, when asked to jump, only answers: “How high?” It is not surprising that the White House is so optimistic that Johnson will follow Trump’s thinking on issues such as Iran, Huawei and Israel. But making submission to a Trump White House the corollary of Brexit, Johnson risks narrowing the appeal of leaving the EU.
‘I do not know the ambassador, but he is not liked or well thought of within the US’ Donald Trump in a tweet on Monday
▼ Trump and Darroch at a Capitol Hill event last year. The ambassador was close to Trump’s circle
▲ Boris Johnson refused to back Kim Darroch in Tuesday’s ITV debate