US-UK Diplomatic Spat – What Does It Tell Us About Trump, Boris and Brexit?

Behold his virtues and plaster him in praise, and you’ll likely go far with America’s Donald Trump. Drop a few home truths and less-than-complimentary remarks, however, and you can expect thumb-tapping fury like no other. Just ask the UK’s “wacky” ambassador to the US, Sir Kim “Stupid Guy” Darroch (to adopt Mr Trump’s Twitter-borne verbiage). Former ambassador, that should be – after days at the centre of a furious diplomatic firestorm, Darroch has resigned, acknowledging that his job is now “impossible”. Few could argue with him on that.  

In confidential messages sent to London, the diplomat had offered an unsanitized appraisal of Trump’s administration. “Dysfunctional”, “faction riven”, “inept” and radiating “insecurity” were some of his more withering remarks. Leaked in the tabloid press, Trump’s response was befitting his irascible reputation, ensuring Darroch’s Washington demise with a few choice words: “We will no longer deal with him”. 

Theresa May, the UK’s outgoing prime minister, jumped to Sir Kim’s defence – but she too felt the sharp edge of Trumpian diplomacy. It was “foolish” of her to pursue a Brexit strategy conceived by her team and not his, the president seethed tangentially, branding her efforts in office as “a disaster”. Such language seems at odds with the two nations’ oft-heralded ‘special relationship’ – but when Mr Trump’s blood is boiling, he has little time for customary warmness.

The debacle doesn’t just validate Sir Kim’s assessment of the president’s apparent insecurity, it points to a testing path ahead for the Brits, who – facing off with Brussels over Brexit – must seek to solidify their relations with Washington at every turn. Is kowtowing to D.C. on issues of diplomacy the cost of this support? On this, the two men vying to replace Mrs May offer different approaches. Jeremy Hunt, current Foreign Secretary and the contest’s rank outsider, was clear in his condemnation of Trump’s “disrespectful” outburst.

But the man most likely to be in No 10 Downing Street come the end of July, Boris Johnson, has a different outlook. Pressed on whether he would stand by Sir Kim if elected, Johnson deflected. An utter “failure of leadership and decency,” decried the widely respected Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan, who accused Johnson of throwing Darroch “under the bus” in order to “suck up to the President of the United States”. 

Incendiary as they are, his words aren’t far off the mark. Failing to endorse Sir Kim was the first real act of Johnson’s yet-to-be premiership, and set out clearly his stall with regard transatlantic relations. He hasn’t always been a fan of Trump – once accusing him of “stupefying ignorance” – but he’s a pragmatist and knows his Brexit no-deal leap can have no soft landing without a friendly US onside.   

But the White House knows this too, and the whole Sir Kim affair has only highlighted the sway they have over Johnson. And while close Anglo-American ties might help the UK avoid Brexit catastrophe, the capricious Mr Trump has been steadfast on at least one of his principles: ‘America First’. If there are concessions to be won off of a pliant Prime Minister Johnson in post-Brexit trade talks, Trump will use this leverage. If he needs support in his assault on China and firms like Huawei (to which the UK is somewhat beholden for its future telecommunication needs), Trump will use this leverage. If the precarious peace with Iran takes an ugly turn, Trump will use this leverage.

And if there’s one Brit who’ll be cheering him on along the way, it’s Brexit Party leader and Trump superfan Nigel Farage. Quick to commend Sir Kim’s resignation as “the right decision”, Mr Farage declared it time to install a “non-Remainer” in the role. With this, he hinted at another festering wound that unites the UK’s Brexiteers and Donald Trump: mistrust of the civil service. The US President, clearly frustrated with the glacial pace of Brexit, wants a transatlantic trade deal done quickly. The UK’s Brexit backers want the same thing – and most blame the civil servants who’ve shepherded the exit negotiations for hijacking their post-EU dreams.

But the truth is, the Darroch affair has hindered all parties more than it’s helped. The UK has lost an ambassador who was, by all accounts, effective and (mostly) well liked. Worse than that, a pitiful precedent has been set – with a few stroppy tweets Mr Trump can force out a diligent British diplomat as if the UK were a second-rate subsidiary of the Trump organisation. And for the president himself, few at home will appreciate his contemptuous treatment of a close friend, particularly when framed against his recent warmth toward autocrats. The furore will dissipate soon enough, but the fiasco’s legacy could be enduring indeed.