Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

The demise of Our Man in Washington is a reflection of the chaos of Brexit Britain

The real story behind Sir Kim Darroch's resignation lies not in the US capital but in Westminster

Britain's ambassador to the US, Sir Kim Darroch, attending the Trump-May press conference at the White House in Washington. Reuters
Britain's ambassador to the US, Sir Kim Darroch, attending the Trump-May press conference at the White House in Washington. Reuters

In his early work The Midnight Palace, the novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafon wrote that he hoped there would be forgiveness “for the harm I may have inflicted on you by telling you exactly what happened”. It is a piece of wisdom which works in fiction and perhaps also in real life. There are times when people are punished very severely because they have told the truth – by saying “exactly what happened”. That certainly applies to the fate of the British ambassador to the US, Sir Kim Darroch, who resigned on Wednesday. In what were supposed to be highly confidential dispatches to the Foreign Office in London, Sir Kim described Donald Trump’s administration as “inept” and “dysfunctional”. This is hardly news. American newspapers and CNN have broadcast much the same analysis since Mr Trump was inaugurated as president in 2017. There are 175 foreign embassies in Washington and Sir Kim is certainly not the only ambassador to offer this insight into the Trump administration.

He lost his job not because of what he did but because, through no fault of his own, it became public. A damaging leak of his sensitive communications came to a journalist, Isabel Oakeshott. We’ll hear more about her in a moment. When the story broke, Mr Trump, notoriously thin-skinned, began one of his Twitter tirades. He accused Sir Kim of being “wacky … a very stupid guy … a pompous fool,” and that has exploded into a nasty political row within the British government and Conservative party. The current prime minister, Theresa May, defended Our Man in Washington. So did Sir Kim’s boss, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Mr Hunt is one of two candidates left in the battle to become our next prime minister and he accused Mr Trump of being “disrespectful and wrong”. But Mr Hunt’s rival and the frontrunner, the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, effectively sank Sir Kim’s career by refusing to offer real support during a Tory leadership debate and Sir Kim resigned.

There are now various investigations into who the leaker might be, why he or she acted in this profoundly disloyal way, and who might benefit. But the overarching political question is why someone wanting to be prime minister would fail to back an esteemed British ambassador who was simply doing his job, as honestly as he could. Which leads us back to Ms Oakeshott. She is very close to leading Brexit advocates, including Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, Leave campaign donor Arron Banks, businessman and Leave campaigner Andy Wigmore and Lord Michael Ashcroft, the former deputy chairman of the Conservative party, among others. She was the ghostwriter for a book celebrating some of their activities called The Bad Boys of Brexit.

Why did the leak end up in her hands? We don’t know. What we do know is that as a police inquiry begins, some leading Conservatives have attacked their likely future leader, Mr Johnson, for being weak and craven in kowtowing to Mr Trump. They know that British ambassadors in Washington are generally outstanding individuals. I have not met Sir Kim but I got to know five or six of his predecessors during the decade that I worked in Washington as the BBC’s chief North America correspondent. They all had very different personalities but shared the same accomplishments – a first-rate brain, a quick wit, excellent communication skills – and none of them could be described as “wacky” or “very stupid” or “pompous fools”. Quite the reverse. They were all smart and great company. They made you like them – a wonderful skill in itself – but they were also very blunt when they needed to be.

The overarching question is why someone wanting to be prime minister would fail to back an esteemed British ambassador who was simply doing his job, as honestly as he could

I remember being in the ambassador’s residence, a stunning Lutyens building dating back to 1928, when the then ambassador tore into journalists for describing America’s relationship with the UK as “the special relationship”. The ambassador vigorously insisted that America, being a superpower, had special relationships of many kinds, with many countries. He went through a long list, beginning with Mexico and Canada, because they shared borders with the US; Israel; Ireland; Japan; Saudi Arabia; France for its role in helping the American colonies win independence, and so on. He said we could say Britain has “a” special relationship with the US, based on shared values, shared sacrifice and shared intelligence on defence matters. But talk of “the” special relationship was a foolish British delusion. An American State Department official said to me the phrase “the special relationship” was used by American presidents only when “they want to tickle the Brits on the belly”.

A key skill of ambassadors is to make friends. Mr Trump is skilled at making – and indeed, needing – enemies. But the real story about all this is not in Washington. It is here in Westminster. At first sight, Mr Johnson might appear to have been the beneficiary of the leak. He boasts that as prime minister, he could secure strong relations with Mr Trump and mend fences. Other strong Brexit supporters connected with Ms Oakeshott also claim to be close to Trump. In one famous photograph, Mr Farage stands with Mr Trump in front of the fake gold elevators at Trump Tower. But whoever was behind the leak, Mr Johnson’s supine attitude has made him look extremely weak. Nick Boles, a former Conservative MP, described Mr Johnson as “Donald Trump’s poodle”. Conservative MP Alan Duncan more politely said “the respect held for Boris Johnson has taken a serious nosedive” among Tory MPs.

Polls suggest Mr Trump is regarded as a poor president by two-thirds of British people. He is the butt of jokes for British comedians and satirical magazines as well as mainstream journals. Moreover, the bullying – for that is how it is seen – from Mr Trump comes when the biggest decision in our lifetimes, over Brexit, has still not come to a conclusion. Ironically, Brexit enthusiasts speak of “taking back control” from Brussels while apparently condoning their (most likely) next prime minister for barking on command when he hears his master’s voice.

The former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major has thrown another spanner into Mr Johnson’s grand ambitions by threatening to go to court if the next prime minister suspends British parliament without dissolving it, or, in political jargon, “prorogues” it, to deliver a no-deal Brexit. Sir John said that would be "utterly and totally unacceptable”. Mr Johnson’s beleaguered team shot back that Sir John "has gone completely bonkers" and had "clearly been driven completely mad by Brexit”.

And so, welcome to Brexit Britain: civil war in the Conservative party; an honourable ex-prime minister accused of being insane by “friends” of the man who wants to be his successor; an honourable ex-ambassador forced out of his job – for doing his job. And a “special relationship” between the US and the UK worryingly close to being a master-servant relationship, in which British ambassadors can be easily destroyed by a few tweets and the whims of the White House.

Sir John’s intervention reminds me that when he was prime minister, he had a terrible personal relationship with then US president Bill Clinton. “Don’t worry,” a very senior British diplomat told me. “The president and prime minister are fated to get along.”

“Why?” I asked. “Because it’s the rules,” the diplomat laughed.

But perhaps the rules have changed, although the British sense of humour helps us through the storm. British wits have suggested that the new British ambassador to Washington should be someone Mr Trump loathes – Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim to become mayor of London. As in the the novel by Ruiz Zafon, I would like to tell you “exactly what happened” in all this but things are so bonkers at Westminster right now, the truth may be stranger than fiction.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter

Updated: July 12, 2019 05:32 PM

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