The immediate issue that arises for the outgoing prime minister, Theresa May, and the Foreign Office’s permanent under-secretary of state, Sir Simon McDonald, is whether Sir Kim Darroch, his relations with Trump irreparably damaged by the exposure of the unflattering telegrams, can realistically see out his expected tenure until the end of the year. Trump has expressed his displeasure, and would clearly like Darroch to pack his bags.
But it is argued there are many branches to the
Trump administration, as well as the near-seamless intelligence relationship, and if the doors to the White House are slammed shut in Darroch’s face, he can remain both an influencer and a valuable interlocutor for either London or Washington. It was claimed that many Republicans understand it is the task of an ambassador to send his version of the unvarnished truth. Some of the UK’s best ambassadors did not sympathise with the occupants of the White House. That did not stop them being acute observers of the scene. His early departure might seem pragmatic, but it would also be a victory for the leakers, and reflect a misunderstanding of a diplomat’s role.
The second more important issue for the Foreign Office will be the choice that the new prime minister makes about Darroch’s successor, a decision that was always going to have to be made in the autumn.
Tom Fletcher, a former UK ambassador to Lebanon and close to the current diplomatic corps, reflected a determination to defend Darroch tweeting “Surely in UK and US interests interests to contain damage that leaker has done. Serious leaders know diplomats have duty to report candidly. For a President to personally attack an ambassador of an ally in this way is deplorable. Ambassador can’t answer defend himself, but Ministers should”.
A political appointment from outside the civil service in the current context might be seen as an admission that Farage is right, and there is no one within the Foreign Office capable of being sufficiently enthusiastic about the possibilities of Brexit to seize the chance provided to build an even stronger relationship with Trump.
As such, there will be deep resistance inside the Foreign Office to an outsider. The introduction of a Brexiter businessman, Nigel Farage’s proposition, would be an admission that the Foreign Office collectively cannot bend to its political masters’ bidding. It would be a humiliation, and a public statement of the new administration’s loss of trust in its advisers – a diplomatic Rolls Royce condemned as an untrustworthy banger.
The Foreign Office would have reason to feel doubly aggrieved since Brexit was largely taken out of its hands. If there have been difficulties in extricating the UK from Brussels or striking new trade deals, the recusants are more likely to lie in the Brexit and trade departments. Richard Moore, the political director at the Foreign Office sinceApril 2018, probably spends half his time not on Brexit, but Iran.
McDonald, no greater enthusiast for Johnson’s time as foreign secretary and also likely to leave his post soon after a tumultuous five years, will find many diplomats encouraging him to make a last stand in defence of the integrity of their profession. Those that claim Darroch has not made the best of the opportunities to get close to the Trump administration are really suggesting May should have adopted a different policy on climate change, Iran, Libya and multilateralism. As McDonald himself said, it has been striking how many times on big foreign policy questions May sided with the French rather than Uncle Sam.
Yet it is not unprecedented for the post in Washington to be given to a political appointee. Lord Owen unceremoniously sacked Peter Ramsbotham in 1977, appointing in his place Peter Jay, a young financial journalist and son-in-law of the former prime minister James Callaghan. It was generally acknowledged afterwards to have been a mistake.
Hunt also recently won an internal Foreign Office battle to open up more diplomatic posts to outsiders. Adverts for these posts have just been circulated, even if there was no expectation that major ambassadorships would be appointed outside the professional ranks.
Nigel Farage modestly ruled himself out as the next US ambassador but instead suggested he could work as adviser to the UK government on intelligence, security and trade relations, a job description that would leave the role of the ambassador somewhat circumscribed.
But Brexiters clearly feel the civil service is awash with unreconciled Europhiles that have mounted a rearguard resistance to Brexit, so making the UK’s exit from the EU less of a triumph than it should have been. They point to the pro-European leanings of retired diplomats, the visceral essays by
Sir Ivan Rogers, the former UK ambassador to the EU, or to the warnings issued by the civil servants responsible for no-deal Brexit planning.
Yet as Lord Maude, the Conservative politician that has grappled most over the past decade with the issue of civil service neutrality, would often affirm, the best civil servant is one that challenges a minister, loses the argument and then carries out the minister’s instructions. The worst civil servant is the one that pretends to agree with a minister, but then carries on with their own agenda regardless of the minister’s instructions. Challenge, or a commitment to analysis, does not equate with resistance.