As a lifelong diplomat, it was probably the closest Sir Simon McDonald, the head of the UK diplomatic service, has ever come to publicly showing a sliver of emotion, when speaking to MPs today about the resignation of the Sir Kim Darroch.
The head of the diplomatic service had been summoned by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee to discuss the leaking of sensitive diplomatic cables to the Mail on Sunday, which were highly critical of the US President Donald Trump. Shortly before the committee, Sir Kim Darroch announced his shock resignation.
McDonald began the hearing by explaining that Darroch had left his post for two reasons: the pressure on his family, who he felt would be a target as long as he remained in the US, and the fact that the work of the entire diplomatic mission would be compromised if he remained in post, considering that Donald Trump had effectively barred him from the White House.
In 37 years working at the Foreign Office, McDonald said he had never seen anything like the spat between Donald Trump and the UK ambassador to Washington, and it was a ‘personal tragedy’ that Darroch had been forced to resign. Questioned by MPs, McDonald said he didn’t believe that a head of state, never mind the UK’s closest international ally, had ever refused to cooperate with a UK representative.
As for the immediate impact of the incident, McDonald argued that the leak had undermined the confidence of civil servants in the Foreign Office to speak candidly about foreign leaders, and there would need to be some ‘soul-searching’ in the FCO about how the material was accessed. Britain’s relationship with the US was still strong, he assured MPs, but the department had had a ‘diplomatic encounter’ with a representative from the US embassy in London, which he would not dispute was a ‘free and frank exchange of views’ – diplomatic code for a bust-up.
The inquiry into the identity of the leaker, meanwhile, is still in its early stages but it was revealed today that the police were ‘involved’ in the inquiry, and if a criminal case could be made, the Foreign Office would turn evidence over to prosecutors. MPs also raised the prospect of the culprit being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, which could see them imprisoned for up to two years. It remains to be seen if the leaker will ever be found, and McDonald said that he was ‘bracing’ himself for more information to be released, but he promised nonetheless to ‘pursue the culprit with all the means at [his] disposal.’
There was of course a giant elephant in Committee Room 16 today as the MPs grilled the Foreign Office civil about the incident, and his name was Boris Johnson. Although Darroch did not mention Johnson in his resignation letter, it’s possibly not a coincidence that he resigned the morning after the man likely to be the next prime minister refused to defend him during the ITV debates. In several reports this afternoon, civil servant sources and close friends of Darroch have sought to blame his departure on Johnson’s performance the previous night. And while the MPs in the Foreign Affairs committee did not bring up Johnson’s involvement directly, McDonald pointedly thanked the current Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister for their defence of Darroch.
There was also a particular interest at the hearing in how Boris (if he is elected) will appoint the next ambassador to the US. Potentially, Theresa May could choose the next ambassador before Boris Johnson comes to power. But if she does delay the decision, the Foreign Office confirmed that there was no impediment to the next prime minister putting in place a political appointee, potentially leaving the door open to Nigel Farage, who was long coveted the position, becoming the UK’s next ‘man in Washington’. Even in Farage isn’t interested in crossing the Atlantic (his Brexit party is polling near 20 per cent, after all), Prime Minister Johnson will be free to choose a Trump supporter, if he wishes, as the next Ambassador to the US. In the short term, however, it was suggested that Darroch may remain in his post until the next ambassador is officially chosen: ‘he is not disappearing from Washington completely’, McDonald told MPs.
Boris Johnson may have saved from the unfortunate position of having to choose between Kim Darroch and President Trump’s affections if he becomes the next PM, but if today’s hearing is anything to go by, his new relationship with the Foreign Office could be even more complicated.