LONDON – Kim Darroch is astonished.
Britain’s former U.S. ambassador, whose career ended abruptly when his frank views on President Donald Trump were leaked, spent 40 years as a diplomat. But he says he’s never before seen a British government saying it plans to break international law.
“It’s all-round extraordinary,” Darroch said about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s intention to override part of the legally binding Brexit agreement that the British government struck with the European Union.
“It’s one of the things that we thought was a basic principle of Britain’s face to the world: that we stuck by international law and agreements,” Darroch said.
Darroch is speaking during a tumultuous political week. The British government says its “specific and limited” breach of international law is needed to guarantee trade can flow freely to Northern Ireland regardless of the outcome of EU trade talks. But Johnson’s proposed law has infuriated EU leaders, who are threatening legal action. A political battle is looming in Britain's Parliament, and the government’s top civil service lawyer has resigned.
“What does it do for our reputation? How will others look at us if we are saying: ‘We will sign a deal with you, … but if we look at it six months later and decide we don’t like that, we’ll just change it unilaterally, and you’ll just have to live with it?’” said Darroch, who also previously served as Britain's ambassador to the EU.
He could be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu.
Darroch became envoy to Washington in 2016 and had a ringside seat for the first chaotic years of the Trump administration. He describes it in “Collateral Damage,” an entertaining account of his tenure in Washington and its dramatic end. The book is scheduled to be published Oct. 13 in the U.S. by PublicAffairs.
Darroch’s illustrious diplomatic career imploded in July 2019 when the Mail on Sunday newspaper published leaked confidential memos in which the ambassador described Trump’s White House as dysfunctional, incompetent, clumsy and inept.
Such frankness is expected by governments of their ambassadors. But an enraged Trump branded Darroch “a very stupid guy” and said the U.S. administration would no longer deal with him. Darroch was on a flight back to London within days.
The book vividly conveys the vertiginous feeling of being at the center of a political and media storm. But Darroch is remarkably philosophical about the sudden end to his diplomatic career.
“I don’t really do bitterness,” Darroch, who now holds the title Lord Darroch of Kew as a member of Britain's House of Lords, said. “It’s a deliberate choice.”
“Collateral Damage,” is just as interested in exploring how Trump’s insurgent, often dysfunctional administration operated as in analyzing the secrets of the president’s appeal. In the book, Darroch calls it an “intoxicating mix” of star quality, media savvy and an ability to tap into popular resentments.
Boris Johnson helped end Darroch’s career when, after the leak, he publicly declined to say that the ambassador should keep his job. But -- ever the diplomat —Darroch is even-handed about the British leader. He thinks parallels between Johnson and Trump have often been overstated.
Unlike Trump, Johnson is generally supportive of immigration, extols free trade and accepts the need for strong action on climate change.
But Darroch says Johnson, who shares a ruthless streak and an intense ambition with Trump, is “fascinated” by the U.S. president,
“Particularly by Trump’s use of language,” he said. “He does speak with a simplicity and a directness, also sometimes a divisiveness, that is kind of unique.”
There’s a similar directness to the simple slogans -- “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done” -- that helped Johnson win the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 U.K. election.
Darroch also thinks Johnson may be emulating Trump in the British government’s disruptive approach in Brexit negotiations, such as the resent move to break provisions of the divorce deal and international law that has outraged and upset the EU.
Darroch said that Johnson gave a 2018 speech “saying that if Donald Trump had been asked to negotiate Brexit, he would have made some apparently outrageous and provocative demands right at the start. There would have been total chaos, lots of harsh words in both directions, lots of noise. But eventually things would have settled down. And maybe he will have got a very good outcome.”
“It’s the chaos theory of negotiating," Darroch said. "Making your negotiating partner think that you’re so crazy that you’d better give him what he wants, because who knows what he will do next. And I just wonder if there are some echoes of that” in the government’s Brexit approach.
So far, it doesn't seem to be working on the EU. But Darroch thinks that if Trump wins a second term, “Boris can be his best friend in Europe.”
“That relationship could be very close,” the former ambassador said. “I think you’d get a (U.S.-U.K.) free trade deal quite quickly, though one that involves us making some serious concessions on agriculture” such as accepting chlorine-washed chicken, something many in Britain find hard to swallow.
While many in British government yearn for the relative stability promised by a Joe Biden presidency, Darroch thinks a U.S.-U.K. trade deal would be harder to secure if Biden wins.
“Without overstating this ... I do wonder about whether for a Biden administration a free trade deal with the U.K. would be the absolute top priority,” he said. “Biden was part of the Obama administration, and Obama said we’d be ‘back of the queue’ (for a trade deal) if we left the European Union.”
Darroch took Trump seriously from the start, cabling London in February 2016 to say he was likely to be the Republican presidential candidate and could win the presidency. Once Trump took office, Darroch wondered how the president would deal with a major crisis.
“And I think we’re now starting to get an answer to that in terms of how the pandemic is going in America,” he said.
Still, he says, the president should not be underestimated.
“It would be very unwise to count Trump out,” Darroch said.