Boris Johnson has refused to rule out sacking the UK’s ambassador to the US after messages criticising Donald Trump were leaked to the media.
The Tory leadership favourite was challenged to confirm whether Sir Kim Darroch would be allowed to stay in post if he was elected PM, after diplomatic wires emerged in which the ambassador suggested the Trump administration was “dysfunctional”.
It came amid an extraordinary hour of Tory-on-Tory attacks as the arch-Brexiteer took part in a televised debate with his rival for the top job, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Speaking on ITV’s Britain’s Next Prime Minister programme, Johnson said he would pick the UK’s diplomats as PM, but declined to say Darroch would be allowed to keep his job.
“I think it is absolutely vital that the advice that civil servants give to ministers should not be leaked by ministers and should not be commented on by ministers if civil servants are going to feel free to give that advice with the impartiality that they want,” he said.
Pressed on whether Darroch, who is due to retire next year, could stay in post, he added: “It is vital that our civil service is not politicised by ministers leaking what they say. Whoever leaked that deserves to be eviscerated.”
Hunt, meanwhile, confirmed he would not sack Darroch should Tory members crown him PM.
He said: “Who chooses our ambassadors is a matter for the United Kingdom government and the United Kingdom prime minister and I have made it clear if I am our next prime minister the ambassador in Washington stays because it is our decision.”
He added that he would “certainly keep him (Sir Kim) until he is due to retire”.
Darroch had described the Trump administration as “inept”, “incompetent” and “uniquely dysfunctional” in leaked Foreign Office memos dating from 2017 to the present, the Mail on Sunday reported.
The US President reacted with fury, firing off a series of explosive tweets on Tuesday, some of which were aimed at prime minister Theresa May.
May has backed Darroch, saying diplomats should be free to give ministers “unvarnished” advice, but Trump called the ambassador a “pompous fool” and a “very stupid guy” who had been foisted on the US.
Trump also said “we will no longer deal” with Darroch.
He also launched a personal attack on May over Brexit, accusing her of ignoring his advice and “going her own foolish way”, as the revelations turned into a full-on diplomatic spat.
“The wacky Ambassador that the UK foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy,” he tweeted.
“He should speak to his country, and Prime Minister May, about their failed Brexit negotiation, and not be upset with my criticism of how badly it was handled.
“I told @theresa_may how to do that deal, but she went her own foolish way-was unable to get it done. A disaster!
“I don’t know the Ambassador but have been told he is a pompous fool.
“Tell him the USA now has the best Economy & Military anywhere in the World, by far.”
Earlier Hunt had waded into the row to defend May, saying the president’s attack on the PM were “disrespectful and wrong”.
He also warned the president that “allies need to treat each other with respect” and pointed out that US ambassadors to Britain “give their private opinions” to the US administration also.
The two candidates traded blows over Brexit, foreign relations and Universal Credit.
Johnson sought to cast himself as “pedalling optimism” while Hunt repeatedly underlined that he had a detailed plan to govern.