The Kim Darroch affair will further diminish the British civil service

Civil servants will increasingly feel unable to give candid advice for risk of becoming the story. 

NS

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Kim Darroch has resigned as the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to the United States following the leak of diplomatic cables in which he frankly discussed the shortcomings of Donald Trump, describing him as “inept”, “incompetent” and “insecure”, while laying out in candid detail how British diplomats were managing relationships with the Trump administration. Darroch, a career civil servant, has quit his post four months before the end of his term, believing that the leak made it impossible for him to do his job properly.

Darroch’s exit, as with the original leak, attests to his professionalism. It is the job of diplomats to provide candid information to their governments about the political and organisational backdrop of the countries they are in and to detail how they are working around and with those constraints. Darroch’s memos were broadly what anyone who studies the Trump administration in any close detail would expect: they painted a picture of a dysfunctional organisation where the best way to manage relations with Trump is to cultivate his closest allies, as the President is particularly prone to follow the guidance of whoever he has spoken to most recently.

The blunt truth is that there will, somewhere, be equally unflattering briefing notes about Theresa May (bad at small talk, dependent on advisors, soon to be got rid of) across every embassy in the United Kingdom, including the plush new American embassy. But when you have a politician as thin-skinned and volatile as Donald Trump, it becomes impossible to adequately perform the job of a country’s chief diplomat and just as Darroch was acting perfectly properly when he wrote those diplomatic telegrams, he has acted correctly in resigning.

The more troubling development for British public policy has been the reaction of large parts of the British political class. Several senior politicians who are supporting Boris Johnson have suggested that Darroch erred in committing his candid advice to paper. The reason why diplomats are and should be well-paid is the possibility that they might have to resign simply for doing their jobs – in fact, resigning simply for doing your job is, as one senior civil servant reflected to me recently, “part of the job”.

But it understandably has unnerved and worried civil servants that so many politicians have failed to back Darroch. Dominic Raab’s comments on Newsnight last night that Darroch shouldn’t have put his thoughts to paper particularly irritated some officials, who feel that the implicit contract is that they provide candid advice on the condition of confidentiality, and should for whatever reason that confidentiality be broken, while you might have to resign, you should at least expect that it won’t be suggested in public that you were somehow negligent.

The big risk of the Darroch affair and the malicious leak of information is that it heightens an already growing trend on Whitehall, of civil servants sharply limiting their advice for fear it will end up in print and their ministers won’t defend them. That has broadly been the fate of Ivan Rogers, Mark Sedwill and now Darroch.  And that’s a far bigger problem than the question of who replaces Kim Darroch.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.