Mon. Sep 28th, 2020

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Kim Darroch: ‘I thought it would be trial by tweet’

11 min read

The man labelled by Donald Trump as “a pompous fool”, “wacky” and a “very stupid guy” is sitting quietly at the window of an old English pub on the scruffy north Kent coast. Beyond lies a landscape of rough grass, tottering beach huts and the grey waters of the Thames estuary stretching into the distance. “I love it here,” says Kim Darroch. “It can be windy, bleak, cold and grey.”

An imposing figure in this intimate pub, Darroch has chosen the tranquillity of The Sportsman at Seasalter to reflect on the political storm in the US and the UK that severed “the anchor chains” of his world. His job, at the climax of 40 years as a diplomat, was to try to make sense of Trump and Brexit. In the end the two forces combined spectacularly to end his career, his defenestration as Britain’s ambassador in Washington a brutal reminder that the old rules no longer applied.

Darroch’s world fell apart in July 2019 after a newspaper published a leaked memo to his political masters in London that included a confidential 2017 note in which he predicted the Trump administration being unlikely to become “substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction-riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept”. The veteran diplomat looks out over the kitchen garden, and reflects on events since he wrote the fateful memo and asks, rhetorically, “Was it a bad call? Was it?”

Darroch’s observation that Trump “radiates insecurity” appeared to be immediately borne out as the US president launched an astonishing Twitter assault on Britain’s most senior ambassador, making him persona non grata in Washington. Rather than backing the envoy, prime minister-in-waiting Boris Johnson left Darroch — seen as the archetypal pro-EU British diplomat — swinging in the wind. Within hours, Darroch announced his decision to quit. Now, over a bottle of 2016 Côte des Embouffants in a pub, Darroch has a lot to get off his chest.

Lord Darroch of Kew was never going to opt for a “virtual” Lunch with the FT. In the diplomatic world he is known for his love of parties and high-level gossip. A six-foot-three former rugby player with the healthy glow of a man who has enjoyed some of the best gastronomy the world can offer, the 66-year-old peer extends a Covid-defying handshake as we greet, before sheepishly and reluctantly offering an elbow instead.

A keen sailor, he has chosen this Michelin-starred gastropub for its food and its location on England’s often unglamorous east coast. “It’s very rootsy in an English way,” he says. “It’s not too pretty and when the wind blows it feels like it is coming in straight from Siberia.” Not dissimilar, as he was to find out, from life at the court of Donald Trump.

Over the course of a lunch spanning almost three hours — and six courses from a sublime tasting menu — Darroch holds forth on Trump, Brexit, Johnson, the state of Britain’s besieged civil service and a personal story that defies many people’s preconceptions about this sleek denizen of the diplomatic soirée.

As starters of beetroot, blackberries and crème fraîche arrive, Darroch starts at the beginning with an account of his early years that he — as a “repressed, unemotional Englishman” — clearly finds difficult to tell. Born in County Durham, he later lived in Kenya where his father taught English at an international school. They returned to England when he was very young. “My mother stayed in Kenya and remarried,” he says. “I haven’t seen her since I was five. Anyway . . . ” Darroch develops a pronounced cough as I try to elicit more information about what must have been a traumatic moment in his young life. “I never got in touch with her,” he says, adding that he does not know if she is still alive. People tell him he has two half-sisters “somewhere”.

THE SPORTSMAN

Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent, England

Tasting menu x2 £120

  • Beetroot, blackberries and crème fraîche x2

  • Slip sole grilled in seaweed butter x2

  • Aylesbury duck with blackberries and hazelnuts

  • Chicken braised in red wine

  • Blueberry and almond tart with crème fraîche x2

  • Côtes des Embouffants, Roger Neveu, Sancerre 2018 £30

  • Water, coffee, aperitifs £22.25

Total (inc service) £189.25

With his mother now a memory on another continent, Darroch ended up living with his grandmother in a council flat in Abingdon, near Oxford, while his father took up a teaching post many miles away, returning at weekends. Darroch enjoyed life on the council estate, playing football with friends, but his life took a different turn when he won a scholarship to the local fee-paying school. “I was the only person on the estate going to Abingdon school.”

Darroch admits in his fruity baritone that many people are “mildly surprised” to discover he was a council estate boy until the age of 15: “I don’t know why — I don’t think I sound very public schoolboy!” Actually, he does. He says he “benefited massively” from an elite education that took him to Durham University to study zoology, a choice of degree that even he finds baffling to this day. Teachers advised him that science was the future, but a dissertation on the content of certain ions in centipedes confirmed to the young Darroch that his future lay elsewhere.

By now a crisp bottle of Sancerre has arrived and the colour rises in his cheeks as he begins to recount his rise from the “slow stream” of the Foreign Office graduate intake — his choice of a diplomatic career was something of a whim — to his eventual destination in the crosshairs of Trump’s Twitter feed some 40 years later. “My life is a series of mistakes really,” he smiles.

Darroch entered a world of British post-empire diplomacy founded on the twin pillars of the UK’s membership of the EU and its longstanding “special relationship” with the US. Bodies such as the World Trade Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund were revered parts of the international order. After Brexit and a few years of Trump, Darroch says: “The foundations of everything I had worked on in foreign policy had just vanished. You really felt adrift. Someone had chopped off one of the anchor chains. International organisations were being attacked or ignored more than at any time in my career. It was as complete a change in three and a half years as was imaginable.”

In those early days Darroch worked on the project to build a “fixed link” between Britain and France — Margaret Thatcher did not like the French idea of a rail tunnel, preferring the individualism of private cars. “They didn’t really work out how to get the car exhaust out of a tunnel,” he recalls. “Someone had the idea of putting giant fans at either end blowing wind through at 100mph.”


By now a delicious Rye Bay slip sole has arrived on our table — the delicate flavour of the fish complimented by a subtle butter made with seaweed from the beach — and Darroch recalls the two jobs that made his name at the Foreign Office: heading the news department and later working as the lead official on the Bosnia civil war, making a number of trips to besieged Sarajevo.

Darroch’s first experience of Britain’s worsening relations with the EU came at his first European summit in Rome in 1990, where Thatcher stood alone in opposing moves to create a single currency, common foreign policy and open borders. “They footnoted us,” Darroch recalls. “They said ‘one country disagreed’. That was us.” Darroch says that summit marked a departure from Britain’s agenda of creating a single economic bloc to a much broader project.

He says the tightening of the eurozone as a “bloc within a bloc” after the 2008 financial crash and the refugee crisis of 2015 also added to Euroscepticism in the run-up to David Cameron’s 2016 referendum on EU membership. So could Britain have continued to live in a house being built by others? “Absolutely,” he exclaims. He says Britain had secured enough “opt-outs” to remain in the club, but admits that a succession of UK leaders — including Cameron — contributed to losing public support for the EU.

“They turned every European Council into the Battle of Britain, where you have to defeat the foreigners,” Darroch sighs. “It’s difficult to do that and then ask people to vote for the EU because it is a good thing.” He watched the Brexit referendum results from a colleague’s house in Washington with growing despair. He went to bed but woke up at 4am to headlines announcing: “Cameron resigns.”

“I felt quite sad,” he says. “Also a whole host of unknowns come into play. You’re thinking: what? What went wrong? What’s going to happen next?” Darroch says there is nothing “more ridiculous” than blaming the voters. He admits that Trump had a point when he noted that people were not voting for change because they were “tired of winning so much”.

Darroch believes Johnson “genuinely” wants a post-Brexit trade deal (even if some allies may not), but says the world has turned on its head when a Conserv­ative prime minister is holding out against a trade deal because he wants the freedom to hand out subsidies to UK companies.

“The EU state aid regime was largely designed by Treasury officials in the days of Margaret Thatcher,” he says, despairingly. “Brussels is confused about where this government is coming from because they think the Con­serv­ative party is still Thatcherite. It’s not Thatcherite — it’s a radical populist government.”


By now the main culinary attraction — Aylesbury duck for me, chicken braised in red wine for Darroch — has arrived. “Terrific,” he masticates. “For want of a better phrase, it tastes more chickeny than any chicken I’ve ever eaten.” As the wine flows, we talk about Trump, Johnson and the dramatic end to his career.

After a spell as Cameron’s national security adviser, Darroch was appointed ambassador to Washington in January 2016. From the start, Darroch was keen to downplay Britain’s obsession with its supposed “special relationship” with the US. “It sounds a bit needy,” he says. “It’s not something the Washington administration would talk about, except in an ironic sense. I didn’t actually ban the term, but we didn’t use it a lot.” It was the tail-end of Barack Obama’s presidency and a time of profound change. “We never discounted Trump,” he says. “It wasn’t difficult to understand his appeal.”

Soon after Trump’s election, Darroch had a taste of what was to come when he was awoken by phone messages telling him that the president had tweeted that his friend Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit party, would do “a very good job” as Britain’s ambassador to the US. Darroch recalls: “I’m thinking to myself: what?” Theresa May’s Downing Street quickly issued a mild statement — “it was fine” — saying there was no vacancy in Washington, but it set the scene for a bigger clash down the line.

Then in 2019 came the big leak. Police never found the person responsible for leaking Darroch’s Trump cables, but he says they discounted Russian hacking. “The police think it was leaked by human hand,” he says. “Maybe someone thought I was being too critical of the administration and I should be exposed,” he says. “Then I wonder whether it was part of the whole Brexit thing and that it was war on anyone who was assumed to be a Remainer.”

He says Trump’s first tweet about the leak was “disparaging about me, but not a killer” but he knew that worse would follow. “I thought it would be trial by tweet.” Then Trump escalated the personal attacks and made it clear that he would no longer deal with Darroch and the ambassador was summarily uninvited to a White House dinner.

When I spoke to him on that day, Darroch said then that he would not fall on his sword and that it would set a terrible precedent if he resigned. “When you rang me, that sharpened things up for me,” he says. But his resolve quickly evaporated, not least when Johnson — hot favourite to succeed May as prime minister — “ducked and weaved” in a television debate on whether he would keep Darroch in his post.

Darroch says his wife Vanessa was furious with Johnson and he admits: “I was thinking about that first phone call between Johnson and Trump where Trump would say — maybe — ‘you’ve got to get rid of your ambassador’.” He adds: “Do I want weeks and weeks of stuff about when is this beleaguered ambassador going to go?” In the end he decided he could no longer do his job.

As our blueberry tarts arrive, he discloses that someone in the Trump administration called to say sorry for what happened. Who? “Ha, ha, ha. I can’t tell you who, I’m afraid. It would be too risky for them. Honestly it would put their position at risk.” He also received a five-minute phone call from Johnson on the day he quit, although the prospective prime minister did not exactly apologise.

“You know what Boris is like,” he says. “He starts and stops sentences. I told him his failure to back me was a factor but it wasn’t a lead factor. He said he felt it wouldn’t have been appropriate to have discussed the future of the British ambassador in Washington on live television.” He laughs at my raised eyebrows. He adds: “Look, there was a certain tension in the air but it was a perfectly amicable conversation.” Ultimately he says he holds the leaker — not Trump or Johnson — to blame.

Darroch believes that Trump can win this year’s US election. “If you gave me £100 and held a gun to my head, I’d put it on Biden,” he says over coffee. “But I would never spend my own money on that bet. I think it will get nasty on the streets whichever way it goes.”

Whoever wins, he expects Johnson to quickly try to do a trade deal with the US as a big post-Brexit statement. The former ambassador is sceptical such a deal will be possible without “a substantial concession on agriculture” from the Brits — something that may prove hard to deliver. He is not sure that Joe Biden would be looking to do a quick trade deal with Britain either, adding: “Biden is not a fan of Brexit.”

Darroch, who looks forward to playing a role in the House of Lords, suggests he will be on Johnson’s case if the government continues to use the diplomats and civil servants he has worked with for the best part of 40 years as scapegoats for the government’s failings. “I don’t like the sight of some cabinet ministers reaching for a microphone to blame the civil service. It’s not good.”

As for Johnson, he says the jury is out and that he has had to deal with a pandemic and a near-death experience with coronavirus. As we prepare to go out into the late summer Kentish sun, the tang of salt in the air, he seems to realise that after 40 years as a diplomat he is perhaps being a little too nuanced about the man who played a part in his own downfall. He smiles: “I’m bending over backwards to be fair to him. But it has not been a great six months.”

George Parker is the FT’s political editor

‘Collateral Damage’ by Kim Darroch will be published by William Collins on September 17

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