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Johnson failed Kim Darroch abysmally. He doesn’t deserve to choose his replacement

I can think of no previous occasion where an ambassador or, for that matter, a minister has had to resign because he has told the truth, rather than because he has told a lie, in the performance of his public duties. That has been the fate of Kim Darroch. There are three people responsible for the loss to the UK of a hugely competent, professional and honourable public servant.

The first person who should hang his or her head in shame is whoever was responsible for the leak in the first place. Whatever the motive, it was a treacherous and indefensible act of disloyalty.

The second person is the US president. For Donald Trump to describe the British ambassador as “wacky” and “deeply unpopular” is so laughable as to make the pot calling the kettle black forgivable in comparison.

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We can assume that, in the last few weeks, Trump has received a candid assessment from his ambassador in London of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. No doubt the report will not have just referred to their virtues but also to their defects. In the case of Johnson, that might have required more than a paragraph.

If that report were to leak, would the British government be entitled to break off all contact with the US ambassador? The president’s childish behaviour discredits the office he holds. All Americans I have met in the last few days are embarrassed by his behaviour.

I have to say, with considerable sadness, that the third person responsible for the defenestration of Kim Darroch was Boris Johnson. His refusal, in response to the Trump tweets, to defend the ambassador and to offer even the mildest criticism of the president’s nasty remarks does not bode well if he becomes our prime minister. He could easily have distanced himself from the president without using strong language to attack him. He did not even try.

That was a body blow not just to Darroch but to every diplomat and civil servant in Britain, who have the right to expect ministers to defend them when they are attacked for doing their duty. An ambassador cannot continue in office if he or she is refused access not just to the president or prime minister but to the whole government of the country in which they are serving. Darroch showed his professionalism and integrity by offering his resignation as soon as this occurred.

On the leak itself, I have one criticism, not of the ambassador but of those responsible for the distribution of dispatches from the British embassy to No 10 and Whitehall. The dispatches would have been classified but in the case of an ambassador giving a candid and critical assessment of the head of state of a friendly ally, the relevant telegram should have been marked “for your eyes only” and limited to the prime minister, senior ministers and top diplomats in London, perhaps a dozen people in all.

If it was thought useful to share the ambassador’s assessment more widely in government, his judgments and comments could have been rewritten in a different format without being attributed to the ambassador. If that was not done it should be done in future, not just for Washington but for the most sensitive dispatches to and from any capital.

The most important decision that now needs to be made is the choice of a new ambassador to Washington. Given the need to close this distasteful and damaging episode, that choice should be made swiftly by the prime minister in consultation with the two candidates to succeed her.

We have the useful coincidence that Jeremy Hunt is foreign secretary and Boris Johnson is a former foreign secretary, so both will be familiar not only with the role of a British ambassador in Washington but also with the strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates. David Cameron appointed the new British ambassador to Paris a few days before he resigned, with minimal consultation. There is no reason why Theresa May, consulting with Hunt and Johnson, cannot choose a successor in the next two weeks.

There have been some calls for a politician to be made the new ambassador, rather than a professional diplomat. There are precedents for former ministers becoming envoys both in Washington and other capitals.

I believe it would be a serious mistake on this occasion. To do so would, fairly or unfairly, be interpreted both by our diplomats and our civil service as indicating a lack of confidence in their professionalism, integrity and political neutrality. They are already feeling battered not just by Darroch’s forced resignation but by scurrilous accusations, over the last few months, arising out of Brexit controversies.

I served 18 years as a minister, six of which were in the Foreign Office. I never had reason to doubt the political neutrality and determination to advance government policy of those who served me. When I stepped down as foreign secretary in 1997, my private secretaries and other diplomats in my private office served my Labour successor, Robin Cook, with the same loyalty. That is one of the great traditions of public service in the UK.

To be asked to be British ambassador to Washington is the greatest honour for any diplomat. Darroch has been one of our best. The prime minister will have no difficulty in finding a worthy successor.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind served as a minister in the Foreign Office from 1982-86 and as foreign secretary from 1995-97

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