When Sir Kim Darroch got the call from Boris Johnson, the UK’s ambassador to the US couldn’t have been more polite, gracious or diplomatic.
Johnson had rung to express his “regret” at his resignation, following one of the most serious breakdowns in relations between an American president and a British diplomat whose job depends on access to the White House.
Darroch explained that several factors had led to his decision, ranging from being disinvited from key meetings by Donald Trump, fresh tweets from the president and a personal sense of duty that he had to take control of the situation.
But friends say that Darroch also mentioned another reason: Johnson’s refusal in the ITV Tory leadership debate on Tuesday night to give his explicit support for the ambassador staying in post until his planned departure date in January.
For Johnson, the man on course to be the next British prime minister, the whole issue was not about the individual but about the principle of close relations between the UK and the US. With Trump set firmly against Darroch, the practicality of doing his job had also been fatally undermined too.
And looming over it all for Johnson was Brexit, the defining mission that he championed in the referendum in 2016 and which will make or break his own premiership. For some MPs in his team, the UK’s departure from the EU was more important than Darroch’s departure from Washington.
With the ambassador having drunk in the last chance saloon, it was perhaps fitting that Johnson gave his first reaction to the resignation in a British pub. He was in a Wetherspoon’s in London, pulling lunchtime pints in a photocall alongside Brexit-backing businessman Tim Martin when asked about the shock news.
Keenly aware that his own allies are suspected of leaking Darroch’s confidential analysis that Trump was ‘inept’, ‘incompetent’ and ‘insecure’, Johnson told the TV crew that whoever had leaked the telegrams to the Mail on Sunday deserved to be hunted down.
“I think he was a superb diplo…is a superb diplomat and I worked with him for many years…I hope that whoever did it is run down, caught and eviscerated quite frankly.”
When put to him that he had failed to back Darroch in the TV debate, Johnson said: “It’s wrong to drag civil servants into the political arena, that’s what I think.”
His evasion, after ducking the question six times the night before, confirmed to allies of rival Jeremy Hunt that the former foreign secretary was more focused on cosying up to Trump than standing up for British civil servants.
Just 24 hours earlier, Darroch had been buoyed by a personal note sent by Theresa May from London, informing him he had not only her full backing but that of the entire Cabinet. His fate had been the top item of their Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
But for Darroch, Trump’s anger at his frank assessment of his administration was already making his job untenable. He had volunteered not to attend a meeting between trade secretary Liam Fox and Ivanka Trump on Monday, but was then brutally disinvited from a dinner hosted for the Emir of Kuwait.
The real blow however was when US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross had cancelled a long-planned meeting with Fox, who had crossed the Atlantic to see his counterpart, because Darroch had been expected to attend.
Darroch had put in the hard yards getting to know and befriend Ross, not least given the extra importance of trade ties after Brexit. The two had had dinner just days earlier, but Trump’s edict to blackball the ambassador overruled all personal links.
It’s for this reason that Johnson’s allies argue that Darroch had already made up his mind to go. Yet Jeremy Hunt has told friends he knows personally that the ambassador’s mood had been influenced further by the ITV debate. Although Darroch didn’t watch the encounter, he was given a full readout of Johnson’s failure to support his continued tenure.
The ambassador decided to sleep on it but went to bed in the grand, historic residence off Massachusetts Avenue - the biggest in Washington - very uneasy indeed. When he woke up, he was greeted by fresh Trump tweets attacking him as “a very stupid guy” and “a pompous fool”. Darroch’s mind was made up. He and foreign office chief Sir Simon McDonald talked on the phone first thing and his resignation was confirmed.
Despite his close ties to senior administration figures and Republicans in Congress, with Trump cutting off the contacts that are the lifeblood of any ambassador it was impossible to carry on. The lack of support back home from the man who would be PM in just a fortnight was the final coup de grace. “He felt he had nowhere else to go,” one insider said.
Darroch formally confirmed his departure to May during a five-minute phone call at 11.30am, just half an hour before prime minister’s question was due to start in the House of Commons. Just before the session, the foreign office announced the decision.
One great irony in the affair, according to a former foreign office minister, is that Darroch was in fact one of the few people who kept open lines to Trump’s team during 2016 when everyone else was writing off his presidential bid. “Everyone though Hillary would win, but Kim was the utter professional and kept saying we needed to keep close to Trump,” the ex minister said.
In fact, it was Darroch who helped arrange for Johnson to get a foot in the door with the Trump transition team in early 2017. Johnson had needed to rebuild his relations, having once attacked the former reality TV star for his remarks about London being a no-go area for crime.
Back in 2019, Theresa May is now weighing up just who should replace Darroch. He had been due to take a month’s leave next month anyway but the need to fill his shoes is more urgent than ever. “She knows the difficulty of not binding the hands of your successor,” said one insider. “But she is also utterly furious at Kim’s treatment.”
Another source added: “Everyone is wondering who the fuck Boris wants to give the job to.” And most important consideration for May is “not letting the leaker win” by replacing Darroch with a foreign office outsider, they add.
She had told MPs on Wednesday: “I hope the House will reflect on the importance of defending our values and principles, particularly when they are under pressure.”
May’s determination not to be cowed was boosted by the huge turnout of civil servants at the foreign office for a special rallying talk by permanent undersecretary McDonald on Wednesday afternoon. Packing the Locarno Suite, the ranks of senior staff told its own story of a civil service defiant in the face of the biggest threat to its independence in years.
Among the names in the frame is Sir Mark Sedwill, the current cabinet secretary and national security adviser who has long made clear he wants the Washington job. Like many who have taken the post in recent years, his security expertise is seen as a natural fit and his removal from London would allow a new PM to set their own direction domestically.
Other contenders include the UK’s ambassador to Berlin Sir Sebastian Wood and to Russia Sir Laurie Bristow. But May is also considering sending a woman to Washington, itself a signal to the notoriously sexist Trump that he can’t push Britain around. Both the UK’s ambassador to the UN, Dame Karen Pierce, and to China, Barbara Woodward, are seen as very capable candidates.
Overnight, Trump confirmed perhaps to May just why it was important to send a message about British ‘values’. He retweeted another British controversialist, reality TV star-turned-white-supremacist-endorser Katie Hopkins. Hopkins tweeted praise for a list of right-wing figures: “Trump in the White House, Boris in Number 10, Netanyahu building Israel, Bolsanaro, Salvini, Orban, Kaczyński, & the Right Minded bringing strength in depth”.
Whether Johnson has any sense of shame at being included in that list, he is unlikely to go public with it.