The resignation of Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the U.S., has cast a pall over the already humiliating contest between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt to determine who will succeed Prime Minister Theresa May as Donald Trump’s whipping boy. Hunt, the foreign secretary, played the more stalwart of the two during a televised debate on Tuesday night, expressing support for Darroch to remain in his post following the leak of diplomatic cables in which the diplomat characterized the president and his administration as “incompetent,” “dysfunctional,” and “inept.” Johnson, previewing a more servile relationship with the White House, said that Trump was “not necessarily” right to denigrate Darroch as “a very stupid guy” and a “pompous fool,” but refused to say whether he would keep or sack the ambassador. Darroch, of course, hardly broke new ground in his assessment of the president, as evidenced by Trump’s predictable ravings on Twitter. But Johnson’s instincts were correct. On Wednesday morning Darroch had resigned, Hunt was hopping on the back foot, and BoJo looks even closer to entering Downing Street and inheriting a politics darkened by skulduggery.
Indeed, the leak that led to Darroch’s ouster seems to have been engineered by hard Brexiteers to produce just such an outcome. The contents of the cables, dated from 2017, were passed to journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who is close to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and has worked for his financial patron, Leave.EU founder Arron Banks. In a remarkable feat of timing, the publication of Oakeshott’s story in the Mail on Sunday was followed in quick succession by a demand from Farage that Darroch be fired and a message from the Leave.EU campaign that suggested “Britain’s anti-Brexit ambassador to the US” should be “replaced by a favourite of the President,” like Farage. (Trump himself endorsed Farage for the job in 2016.)
A year ago it might have seemed incredible that such dark maneuverings might result in a Johnson administration, represented by Farage in Washington. Yet as the Brexit melodrama devolves, events have conspired toward new heights of absurdity. May, who tried and failed three times to push her Brexit blueprint through Parliament before resigning, at least attempted to strike a compromise between Westminster and Brussels. Johnson, who appears most likely to succeed her, offers machismo and mysticism. “When the E.U. understands that we are ready for no deal, that we are prepared, then they will give us the deal that we need,” he explained Tuesday night. Such theatrics will no doubt appeal to the the 160,000 largely white, largely superannuated Tory voters who will select the next prime minister. On Wednesday, Betfair declared Farage the favorite to replace Darroch at odds of 3 to 1.
Darroch’s resignation is, in a way, the perfect metaphor for the perversion of the “special relationship” in the Trump era. The great irony is that Brexit, marketed as a way for Britons to “take back control” from the E.U., is tilting the U.K. toward a new state of vassalage. Instead of the muscular, sovereign Britain that was promised, the U.K. of Boris Johnson appears to be drifting further into Trump’s orbit, sacrificing its diplomats to propitiate a much-needed trading partner. Darroch himself must have realized his position was untenable after Johnson failed to back him on Tuesday. “I hope the house will reflect on the importance of defending our values and principles, particularly when they are under pressure,” May told ministers, pointedly, after the ambassador stepped down.
Tuesday’s debate also highlighted the increasingly imbecilic quality of British politics as a whole. As they sparred, Hunt and Johnson didn’t just lock horns over diplomatic cables—they fired shots over Brexit, with Johnson insisting he would bring the U.K. out of the E.U. with or without a deal on October 31, and vowing to pluck the country off Brexit’s “hamster wheel of doom.” Strikingly absent, as ever, was a cogent plan for breaking the ongoing deadlock.
Instead Johnson quipped he admired Hunt’s ability to “change his mind” (a jibe at the fact that Hunt originally voted to Remain). Hunt, meanwhile, accused Johnson of “peddling optimism” without attention to detail. “You ask him a question, he puts a smile on your face, and you forget what the question was. Brilliant quality for a politician, maybe not for a prime minister,” he said.
Here, Hunt captured what is at the heart of Britain’s leadership debate, and what lost Darroch his job. The problem is that the appeal of a decent personality has been subsumed by the cult of a strong, and slippery, personality. Like Trump, BoJo has packaged his elitist credentials in anti-establishment bluster, without relinquishing any power. And, like Trump, he is a known liar with a tendency to cheerfully flip-flop—even about the president himself. When the president effectively endorsed Johnson during his visit to London last month, he must not have been briefed on Johnson’s observation, during the 2016 campaign, that Trump is “clearly out of his mind,” and “frankly unfit to hold the office of president of the United States.” (Last month, the Led by Donkeys campaign group projected a video of Johnson with those words onto the side of Big Ben.)
Darroch himself was more diplomatic, but then, a shared indifference toward truth is now the defining feature of Britain and America’s alliance. Like Trump, Johnson’s tactics will probably get him elected; whether they can coax a successful Brexit from a deeply divided country and Commons is less likely. To quote Darroch: “We could also be at the beginning of a downward spiral, rather than just a roller coaster; something could emerge that leads to disgrace and downfall.”