Theresa May says Britain’s beleaguered ambassador in Washington still enjoys her “full support” — despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s excoriation of the envoy, Kim Darroch, whose leaked diplomatic cables describing the American leader as “inept and “incompetent” have left British officials writhing in embarrassment.
Despite Downing Street’s backing of the ambassador, British officials concede privately that their top diplomat in Washington will have to be replaced soon, if the political fallout from the cables is to be contained, and to avoid any lasting damage to Anglo-American relations.
On Monday, Trump tweeted he would “no longer deal” with Darroch, who he said was “not well liked or well thought of within the U.S.” Earlier he had said Darroch “has not served the UK well.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said that while Darroch “continues to have the Prime Minister's full support,” she does not share the envoy’s assessments of the Trump administration.
“We have made clear to the U.S. how unfortunate this leak is. The selective extracts leaked do not reflect the closeness of, and the esteem in which we hold, the relationship. At the same time we have also underlined the importance of ambassadors being able to provide honest, unvarnished assessments of the politics in their country,” the spokesperson added.
In the cache of cables covering the past two years, Darroch describes the Trump administration as “dysfunctional.” One cable to Britain’s Foreign Office read: “We don't really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction driven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.”
Darroch was also dismissive of Trump’s policy towards Iran.
The cables were leaked to Brexit advocate Isabel Oakeshott, a sometime journalist and friend of Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, and were published in Britain’s Mail on Sunday newspaper. Analysts suspect the leak is part of a wider Brexit-related power struggle between pro-Brexit factions and old guard British diplomats and civil servants opposed to leaving the European Union.
Darroch is a known Europhile and at one time served as Britain’s envoy in Brussels. Colleagues have rallied behind him, saying it is important diplomats are able to feel free to give their honest opinions and assessments to their political bosses.
“I was a good friend to two presidents, George Bush and Bill Clinton, but I had to be able to report honestly to Number 10 what they were likely to do next, any big differences we might have, and if ambassadors can no longer do that then we're in a very different world,” said Robin Renwick, who served in the 1990s as the British envoy in Washington.
That view is shared by British lawmakers, who worry the leak will persuade other diplomats to hold back on their views. “It is extremely serious because it fundamentally undermines the confidence our envoys can have that the messages they send back are kept private. That puts at risk the ability of the British government to have the best possible advice to make decisions about foreign affairs,” said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.
But former and current British officials say that Trump’s decision to sever ties between the White House and the British envoy places Darroch in an “untenable” position. They say he will have to be moved quickly with another diplomat slotted in to make sure no lasting damage is done to British-American relations.
Theresa May is due to leave office later this month and is likely to be replaced by Boris Johnson, the frontrunner in a Conservative party leadership race.
The former London Mayor is a friend of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and has been praised by the U.S. President, who has said that he thinks Johnson would make “a terrific prime minister.” British officials and lawmakers are hoping that the change of leadership in Downing Street will bring closure to the quarrel over the leaked cables.
Trump himself appeared to signal that would be the case, noting in a flurry of tweets, “The good news for the wonderful United Kingdom is that they will soon have a new prime minister.”
British officials also draw comfort from President Trump’s continued delight over his state visit to Britain in June, where he was feted with pomp and ceremony. Trump tweeted again this week that he had “thoroughly enjoyed the magnificent state visit last month,” noting he was “impressed” with the Queen.
But there are still concerns in the corridors of power in London about the possible fallout from the cables amid fears that what has been published so far is a small amount of what was leaked. More Darroch cables could appear in the media, they fear.
That could enrage the U.S. leader, they U.S. President. Officials note Trump attacks have intensified in the last 24 hours and that he has also turned his fire on Theresa May now as well, emphasizing once again his criticism of her handling of the Brexit negations with the European Union.
“I have been very critical of about the way the UK and Prime Minister Theresa May handled Brexit,” he tweeted Tuesday. “What a mess she and her representatives have created. I told her how it should be done, but she decided to go another way,” he added.
Downing Street has ordered a mole-hunt for the leaker and is scrambling to try to ensure no other embarrassing cables find their way to the media. The last time a British envoy was forced out of Washington was in 1856, when the then ambassador was accused of trying to recruit Americans to fight in the Crimean War.