Expert View

If we Brexit, will UK appoint its ambassadors… or Trump?

by David Hannay | 09.07.2019

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

In Classical Greek times it was said that those whom the gods wished to destroy they first made mad. This phenomenon seems to be recurring in the ranks of the Brexiters, both Nigel Farage and his sympathisers on the Tory backbenches, as they hack away at one of the essential underpinnings of British political life since the middle of the nineteenth century: the impartiality and loyalty of a non-political civil service.

Olly Robbins, the government’s chief negotiator with the EU, has been subjected for months to sniping and innuendo, despite the fact that everything he was doing in Brussels was under the authority and on the explicit instructions of the prime minister. 

When the governor of the Bank of England dared to make some pretty cautious observations about the costs and implications of a Brexit without a deal he was subjected to the same treatment. 

Now we have the reaction to the unforgivable leaking of confidential diplomatic reporting by the UK’s ambassador to the US, Kim Darroch, to ministers on the Trump administration – no doubt replicated, albeit in less clear and balanced terms, by any number of Washington-based diplomats. This has led to Farage criticising the ambassador for not sharing his own agenda of leaving the EU, despite the policy of the government which originally appointed Darroch being to remain in the EU. 

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Bill Cash, the ultra-Brexiter chair of the Commons EU Scrutiny Committee, has lent support in Parliament to Trump’s intemperate tweeting by echoing Farage’s criticism. Those tweets were added to this lunch time by the president calling Darroch a “very stupid guy” and “pompous fool”, ruling Theresa May’s Brexit policy a “disaster” and observing that America’s “economy and military” was “only getting bigger, better and stronger”.

More insidiously, Bernard Jenkin, another stalwart of the hardline European Research Group, has suggested that retired former diplomats and civil servants still active in public life were somehow betraying that impartiality if they speak out about the problems that Brexit poses.

Let us deal with that last claim first. In my own personal case, I served UK governments from Macmillan to Blair. Every one of them came to the settled conclusion that the country’s best interests were served by being a member of the European Community or EU. There was therefore never any conflict during my service between my own personal views, based on my education studying modern history and on my experience in the 1960s of the UK being pushed around by the bigger players (the US, the EC, Japan) in the Kennedy Round of multilateral trade negotiations, and those of any UK governments. 

Since I ceased to have any government employment, in 2003, Jenkin and many of his colleagues have changed their own minds about EU membership and campaigned successfully for the 2016 referendum. Why am I expected to change my mind? Or to shut up?

More widely, it really is time to stop this process of denigrating civil service loyalty and impartiality. The new prime minister needs to show by his first decisions that he will have none of it; and that the UK’s ambassador in Washington is chosen by our government and not by Donald Trump – and that diplomats are expected to report without fear or favour. 

But who can be sure of this when Johnson today responded to the president’s insults by saying the US was “for the foreseeable future our number one political military friend” and boasting about his good relationship with the White House? If a strong line isn’t taken, then the damage being done by Brexit to our body politic will be even greater than it has been up to now.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

6 Responses to “If we Brexit, will UK appoint its ambassadors… or Trump?”

  • David Hannay asks “Why am I expected to change my mind? Or to shut up?”

    The short answer is that nobody actually expects you to. But they very much hope you will, because the merits of the Brexit they are rooting for (or indeed those of any other) are non-existent, and their assertions in its favour don’t stand up to serious analysis. To Brexit with no deal has become an article of faith that canoot and must not be questioned.

  • I really do not think Sir Kim Darroch did anything wrong but now his observations of the Trump regime have been leaked I believe his position is untenable. The true scandal is that his emails should have been leaked. For whatever political reason I hope the individual/s responsible can be identified and punished – sadly I fear that is very unlikely to happen. The problem for the likes of Olly Robbins is that I believe he was advising the Prime Minister to follow the path she did believing that it would get the remain majority in parliament on board. The only real block to the deal being approved was the backstop which is an obvious trap by the EU to hold a gun to our head in any future trade negotiations. Surely both sides must realise that an adjustment to the backstop, probably a time limited implementation would be enough to get this deal through. I do suspect however that it is the more extreme remain element in parliament that is trying to thwart any deal and force us to stay in. I am now fairly confident that they will lose!

  • Peter, the Irish backstop issue is a fundamental result of multiple sides drawing incompatible red lines regarding borders.
    The Conservative and Unionist Party, and their allies in Northern Ireland, would not survive creating an Irish Sea border even if they wanted to. Sinn Fein and their allies would not countenance the creation of an Irish Land border – a border that would have to be harder than it’s been in virtually the entire existence of the Republic, given that its pre-EU status relied on Ireland aligning with the UK in many policy areas. The EU will not countenance the creation of a border between the Irish Republic and the Continent, at least not without the democratic approval of the Republic. The border between mainland UK and Continental Europe therefore has to be as open as the combination of those three earlier borders, otherwise anything blocked at Dover could simply come in the back door via Dublin, Larne, and Troon. Any scheme that pretends otherwise is like an M. C. Escher print: each part works in isolation, but the whole is physically impossible.

  • Surely that is why an electronic system has to be the answer in the medium term – time limited backstop. Otherwise we are heading for no deal.

  • Trump’s crude insults of our Ambassador and mocking of Theresa May (despite her faults) are just the shape of things to come from a new US-UK relationship. For those putting their faith in a US-UK trade deal, its fairly plain who will be calling the shots. Because we would be desparate to conclude a deal post Brexit, we would be pressured into accomodating the US agri products with their antibiotic and hormone infested meat and cherry picking of the NHS by US pharma concerns. Would love to tell Trump to go and do one, but thanks to the position we’ve got ourselves into on Brexit, nobody would dare.

  • Boris’s strategy is exposed by his shameful dealing with the situation caused by a leak of information from our US Ambassador. His Plan A, B and C is Trump, Trump and Trump. He plans to use his “relationship” with Trump to sell us down the river to all kinds of deals with the US which ultimately will lead to the devastation of home industries. As if he would care anyway. And we will not be able to say “No” because there will not be any other meaningful deals around. So, in just a few months, this podgy, bare-faced liar could cause us even more harm than his lies about the EU have already done. And he is the best that the Tories can find? When it all goes tits-up, and it will, he will walk away with a good-humoured quip. This is the guy to bring the country together. This is the guy that we should get behind. This is the con-man that got us into this.