The story behind the leaking of Sir Kim Darroch’s cables warrants close scrutiny, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
It may seem odd for a journalist to criticise a high-profile leak, especially when it peels away a layer surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency to offer a candid insight into its inner workings, but the remarkable disclosure of a trove of confidential internal memos written by the British ambassador to Washington reveals nothing other than the vindictive nature of those grubbily jostling for power on this side of the Atlantic.
Traditionally, leaks have served a vital public service, shining a light on corruption or impropriety. Those who disseminate the information risk their livelihoods to do so. Often, the jeopardy they invite is even greater.
But the release of Sir Kim Darroch’s correspondence via a Sunday newspaper is only of benefit to a small, self-serving group intent on sabotaging British interests if it means they inch ahead.
Brexit has already gravely undermined Britain’s ability to conduct its diplomatic affairs from a position of strength; the leak merely rammed the nails into the coffin. The fallout from the leaked cables has been immense, prompting a frothing Twitter thread from Mr Trump in which he stressed America will have nothing more to do with Sir Kim. This is despite the fact that many of his muted descriptions of the Trump administration (“unpredictable, “faction-riven,” “inept”) will likely come as a surprise to Mr Trump alone.
The power imbalance in Anglo-American relations, so evident last month when the British state dusted off its fineries to flatter Mr Trump’s sense of himself as a statesman, is now even more acute, and the political repercussions warrant close scrutiny, as do the efforts to determine the leak’s source.
But of equal importance is the story’s genesis, the timing of its publication, and the motivations underpinning it. The journalist behind the scoop, Isabel Oakeshott, is close to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and has even closer ties with Lord Ashcroft, the former chairman of the Conservative Party.
With a contacts book like that, Ms Oakeshott is well versed in handling confidential material. Last summer, it emerged she had been aware of emails linking Arron Banks, the founder of Leave.EU, to Russian officials and businessmen. In isolation, it was not the most surprising of revelations, given Ms Oakeshott was the ghost writer of his book, The Bad Boys of Brexit.
What was striking, however, was the fact she had known since the year before about the emails. Faced with accusations she chose to sit on the material for political reasons, Ms Oakeshott said they were in the “national interest” and insisted: “It was always my intention to publish this information.”
Quite how she defines “national interest” is unclear, but given this is someone who seemingly treats the correspondence of a private citizen with greater tact than she does that of one of Britain’s most senior diplomats, it would appear to diverge from most reasonable interpretations of the concept.
Mere hours after the story on Sir Kim was published, Mr Farage, who had been questioning the neutrality of the civil service, called for him to be sacked. Raheem Kassam, a former chief adviser to Mr Farage, echoed the sentiment, and when questioned on Twitter about the story’s pedigree, replied: “It’s by Isabel, who is one of us.” From which we can only assume he does not mean the Embroiderers’ Guild.
Mr Kassam and Richard Tice, the Brexit Party chairman, are among those positioning themselves as Sir Kim’s successor, while supporters of Mr Farage are championing his cause, despite his modest admission that he is not the “right man for that job”. Which is not the same as saying he doesn’t want it.
The headline of one opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph asked: “Boris will need an ambassador Trump trusts in Washington. Why not send Nigel Farage?”
To which there are almost as many answers as there are to the question, “The banks of the Danube could do with a bit of a spruce up. Why not send Attila the Hun?”
Surprisingly, none are related to the most obvious and apparently disqualifying facts which apply to Mr Farage and his pro-Brexit chums, such as their lack of experience in the diplomatic service.
There exists no rule against political appointees as ambassadors. In 1961, David Ormsby-Gore, a Foreign Office minister, became Britain’s man in Washington. So too did John Freeman, a former Labour MP and editor of the New Statesman, who had penned unflattering articles about Richard Nixon.
There was an even bigger outcry in 1977 when Peter Jay, the son-in-law of Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, took on the job.
But the ascendancy of the likes of Mr Farage to the ambassadorship would make such controversies appear trifling for one simple reason: how do we know they would act in anyone’s interests other than their own, and those of Mr Trump?
The America First administration in Washington knows this. So desperate is Britain for a favourable trade deal with the US, the harm caused by the leaks – whether genuine or feigned – means Mr Trump wields unprecedented influence over the appointment of Sir Kim’s replacement.
This extraordinary state of affairs is the result of an act of self-sabotage fuelled by spite and ruthless ambition, and the consequences for Britain will be far reaching. One thing is clear. In the nuanced craft of diplomacy, sharp teeth now matter more than smooth tongues.