Boris Johnson has been blamed for ending the career of one of the UK’s top diplomats after the British ambassador to the US resigned over the leaking of confidential cables critical of President Donald Trump’s administration.
The frontrunner in the Tory leadership race repeatedly refused to give his unconditional backing to Sir Kim Darroch in a televised debate on Tuesday evening, with diplomatic sources quoted saying the ambassador felt he did not have the confidence of the man likely to be the next prime minister.
In an unprecedented public spat in the transatlantic alliance, Mr Darroch was branded “wacky” and a “stupid guy” by Mr Trump, who said the US government would no longer deal with the UK’s man in Washington after cables were published describing his White House as “inept” and “dysfunctional”.
The ambassador, who has worked in the diplomatic service for 42 years, said it had become “impossible” to perform his duties and would resign ahead of his planned retirement to end “speculation” over his role.
Police are now involved in seeking to identify the leaker who passed the cables to Mail on Sunday journalist Isabel Oakeshott.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May said the ambassador’s resignation was “a matter of deep regret”.
The Prime Minister spoke with Mr Darroch by phone for about five minutes, shortly before facing MPs. A member of her inner circle said Mrs May was “furious” about his resignation.
In the ITV leadership debate, Mr Johnson was repeatedly asked by rival Jeremy Hunt if he would keep Mr Darroch in his post until the end of his tenure, which runs until Christmas, but refused to answer.
Mr Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, said he was “deeply saddened” by Mr Darroch’s resignation.
Mr Johnson, who reportedly spoke to the ambassador by telephone yesterday afternoon, also expressed his regret, adding: “I hope that whoever it is, is run down, caught and eviscerated, quite frankly, because it is not right that advice to ministers that civil servants must be able to make in a spirit of freedom should be leaked.”
But critics rounded on the leadership favourite over his reluctance to give full backing to the ambassador. Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan accused him of having “thrown our top diplomat under a bus” for his own personal interests.
Independent MP Nick Boles, who resigned from the Conservative Party this year, tweeted that Mr Johnson was “already responsible for a grievous blow to the UK’s international reputation”.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry claimed Mr Darroch had “been bullied out of his job, because of Donald Trump’s tantrums and Boris Johnson’s pathetic lick-spittle response”.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “Boris Johnson’s failure last night to stand up for him – and stand up to the behaviour of Donald Trump – spoke volumes.” And Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson posted on twitter that “the diplomatic corps have to be protected and defended or we degrade the whole service”.
There was also anger at the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who is supporting Mr Johnson’s leadership campaign and refused 15 times in an interview on Good Morning Britain yesterday to say whether Mr Darroch should stay in post.
Senior ministers gave unanimous support to the ambassador at a Cabinet meeting less than 24 hours earlier. One senior Number 10 figure said they were “hugely disappointed” in Mr Hancock’s conduct.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said Mr Darroch would continue in his post until his successor is appointed, but did not offer any timescale, saying only that a new ambassador would be named “in due course”.
Sir Simon McDonald, the Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service wrote in response to the ambassador’s resignation letter that “you were the target of a malicious leak; you were simply doing your job... You demonstrate the essence of the values of British public service.”
Mr McDonald gave evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday and told MPs that even hostile states had not forced the departure of a UK ambassador in his 37 years in the department.