Brexiters are being blamed for the leaking of cables written by Britain's former ambassador to the U.S. in which the envoy branded President Donald Trump "clumsy and inept." It emerged Sunday, as a second set of diplomatically embarrassing cables were published in London by a tabloid newspaper, that the journalist behind the stories is in a relationship with the chairman of Britain's newly-formed Brexit party.
The disclosure is adding to accusations that the leaks, which forced Kim Darroch to quit as Britain's envoy in Washington last week after President Trump said he'd no longer have dealings with him, are part of a conspiracy by hardline Brexiters to target top British civil servants viewed as not supportive enough of Britain leaving the European Union.
In Darroch's case the aim appears to be to maneuver a populist-inclined pro-Brexit politician or businessman into being appointed the new U.S. ambassador.
But the apparent conspiracy is straining Anglo-American ties and risks complicating relations between the two countries, fear analysts and British lawmakers.
They note that Trump administration officials have in recent days hardened their position when it comes to negotiating a post-Brexit free trade deal between the U.S. and Britain. Some American officials say a deal would be contingent on London unequivocally backing Washington in the current nuclear stand-off with Iran and blocking a Chinese tech giant from helping to develop Britain's 5G mobile phone system.
Done for 'personality reasons'
In the latest leaked cables published by Britain's Mail on Sunday, Darroch dubs Trump's decision last year to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal as "diplomatic vandalism." And in his reports back to Downing Street and Britain's foreign office he claimed the president had only done so for "personality reasons" out of spite as the agreement had been co-signed by his predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama.
"On the substance, the [U.S.] administration is set upon an act of diplomatic vandalism, seemingly for ideological and personality reasons it was Obama's deal."
Darroch's claim, the latest disclosure from an explosive cache of cables and briefing notes leaked to journalist Isabel Oakeshott, which forced the ambassador's resignation, is prompting rising alarm in London among officials. They braced themselves for swift reaction from President Trump.
Richard Tice, the chairman of Nigel Farage's Brexit party, who is dating Oakeshott denied Sunday he had played any part in arranging the leaks or that he had seen the cables before publication. According to the Sunday Times, news of the secret relationship between the pair is fueling the belief of civil servants and pro-EU lawmakers that Darroch "was brought down by conspirators keen to replace him with a pro-Brexit businessman.'"
Tice admitted to the Sunday Times that he and Oakeshott had discussed details of the cables before publication: "I'm not going to get into details about personal, private conversation," he said.
When cables were first leaked, the head of the Brexit party, Farage, called for Darroch to be fired. British diplomats told VOA that they see Farage's fingerprints on the leak. But in a statement Oakeshott, who straddles the world of journalism and pro-Brexit political activism, denied there had been any skulduggery by her boyfriend, saying he "has never seen them, never handled them and was not involved in acquiring them."
In Brexit circles Tice has been mentioned as a possible contender for the ambassador's job, although he's seen as an outside one. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner in a Conservative leadership race to replace outgoing Prime Minister, Theresa May, is being urged by advisers to appoint Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative party leader and a hardline Brexiter, as a replacement for Darroch.
Duncan Smith met with President Trump during his recent state visit to London. The British ambassador to the U.S. is generally a career diplomat but there have been political appointees in the past, notably Lord Halifax during the Second World War, and in the 1970s Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan appointed his son-in-law, an award-winning economist, to head the embassy in Washington.
The process for replacing Darroch is becoming a political battle between the outgoing prime minister and her likely successor. Johnson's advisers say it should be left to him to appoint a new envoy but Downing Street appears to be trying to expedite the process and to maneuver a career diplomat into the post quickly. The Queen's former private secretary Christopher Geidt is Downing Street's preferred candidate, government officials told VOA.
The Darroch cables are having a series of consequences, though, that those behind the leaks likely didn't foresee or intend, including possibly damaging Anglo-American relations more than they realized they would and prompting a political backlash from British diplomats.
The leaks sparked a furious argument Saturday between lawmakers and Britain's Metropolitan Police, who warned newspapers and broadcasters not to publish anymore of the cables or risk prosecution under the country's little-used Official Secrets Act. That prompted a political outcry with former cabinet ministers and newspaper editors denouncing the warning as a threat to press freedom.