Lord Darroch: Britain’s highest profile political casualty of the Trump era lands on his feet

After alerting his colleagues to the erratic nature of the US president, the Washington envoy’s diplomatic career soon ended. Now he’s addressed the saga in a new book. Mark Landler reports

Wednesday 23 September 2020 12:48 BST
Darroch was made a peer by Theresa May
Darroch was made a peer by Theresa May (Getty)

For Kim Darroch, Britain’s former ambassador to the United States, the latest jaw-dropping revelations about Donald Trump’s private comments about the military and the pandemic could easily be a source of vindication or bitterness.

Vindication, because years earlier, Darroch alerted his colleagues to the unfiltered, erratic nature of the American president in a stream of frank confidential cables from Washington. Bitterness, because the leaking of those memos in 2019 ended his diplomatic career, even though his descriptions were arguably less incriminating than the statements now being attributed to Trump himself.

“Life is full of ironies, isn’t it?” Darroch says with a laugh, looking neither bitter nor vindicated as he sips a cup of tea in the sun-dappled garden behind his home in Richmond.

One of those ironies is that Darroch, perhaps Britain’s most notorious casualty of the Trump era, has landed on his feet. He is now a baron, Lord Darroch of Kew, granted a peerage by Theresa May as compensation for falling on his sword. And he has just published a memoir, Collateral Damage, which recounts his downfall with sorrow and humour but little of the kiss-and-tell of Trump books on the other side of the Atlantic (his book was vetted by the government).

Regardless, Darroch, 66, insists he is not out to settle scores – either with Trump, who called him a “very stupid guy” and said he would not deal with him after the cables were leaked, or with the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, whose refusal to defend him in a televised debate triggered his resignation.

But that doesn’t mean Darroch has let Johnson entirely off the hook. He wrote that after the news broke, Johnson, then the front-runner to succeed May, left him a number of phone messages. When Darroch finally returned the calls, an abashed Johnson told him he didn’t understand why he had quit. The whole thing would have blown over in a few weeks.

Johnson and Trump speak at the G7 summit in Biarritz last year (AFP/Getty)

“Boris said he was sorry if what he had said had contributed to my decision; absolutely not his intention,” Darroch wrote, in the bland language that diplomats use to characterise bumpy exchanges. “We left it at that. There was a certain tension in the atmosphere, but our parting words were amicable.”

Darroch has known Johnson since the 1990s, when the diplomat was the spokesperson for Britain’s foreign secretary. Johnson was then the enfant terrible of the British press in Brussels, filing funny but factually challenged articles for The Daily Telegraph about how bureaucrats there tried to dictate the size of Italian condoms or the shape of bananas, which seeded the anti-European sentiment in Britain that Johnson later harnessed as leader of the Brexit campaign.

“I got on well with him,” Darroch says, adding that if he ran into the prime minister today, “I wouldn’t say to him, ‘I want to chew all this over with you.’ I mean, it’s all gone. I’ve written my book, and you know, life is fine.”

Darroch (right) with Tony Blair in Brussels, 2007 (Getty)

Until Darroch’s explosive views of Trump showed up in The Mail on Sunday in July 2019, life was basically fine.

The grandson of a coal miner, who grew up in public housing, Darroch is not cut from the tailored cloth of many British diplomats. He studied zoology at Durham University, not politics at Oxford. He failed the entrance exam for the diplomatic service, joining through an alternative process known patronisingly as the “slow stream”.

From that unlikely start, Darroch rose steadily through the ranks, with an early posting in Tokyo and assignments that brought him into the inner circle of power at No 10. He served as national security adviser to David Cameron, which gave him an inside track to Washington. But a stint as Britain’s top diplomatic representative to the European Union earnt him the reputation in Britain’s Eurosceptic press of being a Europhile, a phrase that was thrown back at him when the cables were published.

Darroch says his humble background was never an impediment in the diplomatic service and may even have helped him. “I never had the remotest sense of any kind of entitlement to being where I was, and I worked extremely hard,” he says. “Almost like, ‘I can’t let them ever find out how much I’m faking it.’”

May and the US president make their way to a joint press conference at Chequers in 2018 (Getty)

Before going to Washington in January 2016, Darroch and his wife, Vanessa, set off on a three-month road trip of the United States. A fan of films like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, he hoped for a glimpse of America’s restless heart. Instead, he got an early taste of the appeal of Trump, an insurgent presidential candidate whose name kept coming up on their stops in Nashville, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Las Vegas and Longboat Key, Florida.

By February, Darroch told his colleagues in London he believed Trump would win the Republican nomination. He also wrote that Hillary Clinton was a flawed Democratic standard-bearer, though he did not dispute the conventional wisdom that she would ultimately prevail.

“If I had listened more to those people in the Deep South, and in the Southwest, and down in Florida, I might have anticipated better what actually happened on election day,” Darroch says. “Like everyone, I was dazzled by the opinion polls.” He wonders whether the polls that show Joe Biden with a lead over the president are similarly misleading.

Darroch’s early appreciation of Trump was not reciprocated. On the day after the election, he struggled to get a slot for May to give the president-elect a congratulatory call. On learning that Trump had spoken to the leaders of Egypt, Turkey and Australia, Darroch called Trump’s secretary in Trump Tower in desperation and pleaded for her to put his boss through.

Darroch speaks in Washington in 2018 (PA)

A few days later, Trump tweeted that Nigel Farage would make a fine ambassador to Washington.

Britain had resolved to be solicitous towards the new president, and it fell to Darroch to lead the charm offensive. He invited White House aides like Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway to parties at his baronial residence. But Trump himself had a knack for kicking sand in British faces. After May held a lavish dinner for him at Blenheim Palace, The Sun published an interview in which he complained she had ignored his advice on Brexit.

It was in this febrile atmosphere that Darroch privately shared his views with a half-dozen senior officials in London.

“We really don’t think this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional, less unpredictable, less faction-riven, less diplomatically clumsy and inept,” he wrote in one memo. In another, he observed, “For a man who has risen to the highest office on the planet, President Trump radiates insecurity.”

Darroch says he still doesn’t know who leaked the cables, or for what purpose, and it is the one part of the story that leaves him fuming. But he notes a difference between how his words have registered in Britain, where despite the furies of Brexit, public discourse is still generally civil, and the United States, where reports of Trump’s profanity-laced insults barely raise eyebrows anymore.

“People are still saying to me, ‘What you said was so awful. How could you say that about a president?’” he says.

For all that, the rewards of speaking plainly about an unpopular foreign leader have been substantial. Darroch is one of the very few ambassadors to the United States to be awarded a seat in the House of Lords.

Does he have Trump to thank for this?

“You have to ask Theresa May because she gave it to me,” Darroch says. “But, you know, it’s a reasonable hypothesis.”

© The New York Times

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