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We can't succeed at Brexit without reining in our chaotic Foreign Office

Kim Darroch
Beneath the fog of this confected crisis, it’s easy to disregard the fundamentals  Credit: Twitter

They must make relations with the US our top priority now

The lead up to the Brexit denouement in October and the current hothouse atmosphere in Parliament, allied with the Conservative Party leadership battle and a 24-hour social media and newsgathering cycle, inevitably means relatively unimportant events are portrayed as seismic or epoch making crises.

Such is the imbroglio over the resignation of our ambassador to the United States Sir Kim Darroch yesterday.

Outside Westminster and Whitehall, no one really cares. The rumble over the Ferrero Rocher, the hysterical description of the events as a “national humiliation” and the identity of the eventual resident of the ambassador’s palatial home on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC will barely register with the electorate and certainly will have no impact on the Tory membership picking our new Prime Minister.

Jeremy Hunt would be wise to consider that if you want to try to weaponise the issue to damage your opponent, then it’s probably imprudent to deploy perennial Boris-hater Sir Alan Duncan, whose career trajectory resembles that of a kamikaze pilot, and the self-regarding Establishment shill Sir Nicholas Soames, amongst others. The conservative public has a sense of fair play and they can smell an operation to blame Boris for something for which he’s not responsible.

Whoever leaked the sensitive diplomatic telegrams is of course the main culprit behind Sir Kim’s departure but his excommunication and banishment was inevitable once President Trump had decreed it on Monday. The substance of his messages are beside the point: Trust in him within the US administration had collapsed and his position was therefore untenable.

The fact that Sir Kim is a lifelong Foreign Office Europhile and was arguably consistently uncongenial to the Trump White House seems to be beside the point. The “special relationship” is bigger than any one individual and his downfall must be seen in a broader context.

That’s not to say that his colleagues back home in King Charles Street and their media outriders – often retired Whitehall mandarins - have reacted in an altogether restrained and measured way: The bizarre group bonding and breast beating session convened by the Head of the Diplomatic Service Sir Simon McDonald at the Foreign Office yesterday was just a little weird and betrayed a peculiar sense of wagon-circling defensiveness.

It is indeed true that we have the finest diplomatic service in the world but it must never be immune to criticism. Our putative Prime Minister was roundly criticised by FCO types for his jovial reciting of Kipling whilst Foreign Secretary in Myanmar but Sir Simon actually mistook the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the most holy Sikh icon as a “mosque” just last year, and that error was regarded with insouciance.

The caravan will move on. Whilst hard core Remainers are still grieving for a European dream which never materialised, Brexiteers are now focusing on an optimistic new geopolitical strategy in which the United States will be integral.

Beneath the fog of this confected crisis, it’s easy to disregard the fundamentals which Sir Kim’s departure has highlighted: The United States is the preeminent diplomatic posting for any British diplomat and our new Ambassador must actively proselytise for our country’s wider geopolitical interests post Brexit and that is why it is for the new Prime Minister to choose the new incumbent and not Theresa May.

After our departure from the European Union, the US will be our largest overseas market for British goods and services. A new trade and speedy deal will be an imperative for the next Government. More widely, but especially if Donald Trump is re-elected next year, our relationship with the US will be a counter balance to the dominance in Europe of the traditional Franco-German diplomatic and defence alliance.

Whoever is President, the UK will continue to share intelligence and security data with the United States as part of the “Five Eyes” agreement and will continue to be a vital cog in the “military-industrial” complex as both are world leaders in military equipment, personnel and technology. In an era of the growing menace of cyber warfare we will need to fully utilise American expertise.

The anniversary of D Day a month ago reminded us of the blood and treasure expended by our oldest ally in the modern world.   

Undoubtedly, the institutional push-back in Whitehall following Sir Kim’s exit also speaks to a key medium-term priority: the need to modernise and reform how the rarefied upper echelons of our government work. For too long and especially since the EU Referendum in 2016, the culture of leaking has seemed to flourish in the civil service and it appears to have done so with impunity.

The senior Conservative MP Mark Pritchard this week called for an overhaul of the Official Secrets Act with a new Espionage Act to review the threshold for legal action and the possible sanctions available for transgressors and posed the question: What else is being leaked and to whom?

More broadly, we must recognise that the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms which in the nineteenth century provided the underpinning to an impartial and professional civil service, need revisiting 150 years on. Why for instance do we not adopt a much more robust US-style appointment hearings process by MPs for senior civil servants and quango appointees?

Kim Darroch’s pithy summaries of the foibles of the Trump administration ultimately ended his diplomatic career but they also, by a circuitous route, may lead to a much needed and timely recalibration of our relationship with both our closest friends in Europe and our powerful cousins across the Atlantic.

Stewart Jackson was MP for Peterborough 2005-17 and was Chief of Staff to Rt Hon David Davis MP when Brexit Secretary 2017-18