Our Man in Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, e-mailed a series of confidential dispatches to the Foreign Office, describing President Trump in scathing terms.
Trump’s administration, wrote Sir Kim, was likely to “crash and burn” and “end in disgrace”. Because “We really don’t believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less faction riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept.”
That got the columnist Richard Littlejohn upset, which vicariously upset me as well because I usually like Littlejohn’s work. Yet what he wrote on this incident falls far below his usual standard.
To begin with, Littlejohn’s view of Trump’s administration is diametrically opposite to Sir Kim’s. That gives me no problem because my own view, though falling between those two poles, is closer to Littlejohn’s.
That’s why it’s puzzling to see him describe, in his hallmark demotic style, Darroch’s assessment of the Trump administration as a “statement of the bleedin’ obvious”.
Something that’s bleedin’ obvious is so true that it goes without saying. Since Littlejohn clearly doesn’t mean that, perhaps he ought to have dropped that linguistic class badge for the sake of precision.
I do share Littlejohn’s distaste for our mandarins and other fruits, so I have no reason to doubt his overall assessment of Darroch’s character. However, he’s factually incorrect in describing Sir Kim as “one of the new breed of politicised civil servants created by Labour under Blair”.
One of Blair’s gifts to the grateful nation was indeed rampant constitutional vandalism, including the destructive politicisation of what used to be an impartial and professional Civil Service.
It’s probably also true that Darroch is “only too typical of the anti-Brexit, anti-Trump, anti-democratic clique which infests the higher echelons of our Civil Service”. But Darroch already held a high diplomatic post, that of First Secretary at Tokyo, in 1980, 17 years before Blair graced the country with his leadership.
Hence, unless Littlejohn wishes to make the valid, if here extraneous, comment that the debauchment of the Civil Service didn’t start with Blair, although he accelerated it, he’s leading the reader on a wild-goose chase.
Then follows a diatribe about our political establishment closing ranks to sabotage Brexit. Again, though I share Littlejohn’s views on both Brexit and the political establishment, that lengthy aside piles more hay on the stack hiding the needle of the Darroch scandal.
Finally the needle emerges, but at this propitious moment Littlejohn gets things terribly wrong. For he simply misunderstands the role of an ambassador.
“Call me old-fashioned,” he writes, “but civil servants – like children – should be seen and not heard.” And, “[Darroch] is supposed to cultivate a close relationship with President Trump, not slag him off on the sly.”
Well, I won’t call Littlejohn old-fashioned. I’ll call him misguided.
To begin with, Darroch’s confidential dispatches weren’t meant to be either seen or heard by anyone other than his government. Second, a diplomat has a dual, not single, role.
He’s indeed supposed to ingratiate himself to the host government, for otherwise his job in the country would become untenable. But, just as critical, he must also help his own government to formulate its foreign policy by offering observations on the host country’s leaders.
If Darroch’s observations on Trump happen to be negative, it’s childish to accuse him of “slagging him off on the sly”, though I do admire Littlejohn’s use of demotic idiom.
Sir Kim was entirely within his remit. He was doing his job, even if Littlejohn thinks, not unreasonably, that he was doing it badly.
If Darroch’s undiplomatic comments on Trump were confidential, the latter’s response was public and hence even more undiplomatic: “The wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy.”
Like all narcissists, the president can’t stand being disliked, but his choice of words is characteristically wrong. A UK ambassador is appointed, not ‘foisted’ and, as Jeremy Hunt correctly remarked in his debate with Boris Johnson, it’s up to HMG to decide whom to appoint to that role.
Neither is there anything ‘wacky’ or ‘stupid’ about Sir Kim’s comments. These may be wrong and, as Littlejohn thinks, platitudinous, but they reflect Sir Tim’s assessment of the situation, and he’s paid to make such assessments.
It’s not his fault that the dispatches have been hacked and leaked, though I agree with those who call for Darroch’s dismissal. Because his dispatches have been made public, his work in Washington will now be difficult if not impossible, especially considering Trump’s thin skin.
The point may be moot anyway since Sir Tim is due to retire at Christmas, so in any case the president won’t have to put up with the very stupid guy for long. Far more vital is another issue: who hacked into British diplomatic traffic and leaked the purloined information to the papers, and to what end.
Tom Tugendhat, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has asked the Metropolitan Police to launch a criminal investigation, adding that the security services should be involved.
Writing in The Times, he remarked: “Whoever did this has weakened the British government and harmed the interests of the British people. They have, in the true sense of the term, betrayed Britain.”
Now, only those who owe allegiance to Britain can betray her. But what if the source of the leak is foreign and hostile?
This thought has occurred to Whitehall: “The involvement of hostile state actors has not been ruled out.” Proceeding from the old cui bono principle, I’d say this possibility must be emphatically ruled in.
“Hostile state actors” is a euphemism for Putin’s agents, and it’s good to see that Whitehall regards Russia as a hostile state. This status is, to use Littlejohn’s phraseology, bleedin’ obvious to anyone whose judgement is informed by facts, not ideology.
Sowing discord among Western powers is Putin’s stock in trade, and the Atlantic alliance is high on the list of his targets.
Since Britain is America’s most reliable ally in NATO, Russia has a strategic interest in loosening the ties between the two. And Putin’s ‘state actors’ have shown their willingness and ability to use hacking as an offensive weapon – not least in their interference with the US elections.
This is the key aspect of the scandal, and it shouldn’t be obscured by the brouhaha about Sir Tim’s competence and immediate future. But I understand Richard Littlejohn: slagging off Darroch is easier than getting to the bottom of enemy action against Britain.