World·Analysis

Leaked anti-Trump cables from the U.K. ambassador could give Brexiteers a boost in Washington. Here's why

If the job of British ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch isn't in immediate jeopardy following the leak of cables slamming the American president, his expected successor's looks to be. Possibly to the delight of pro-Brexit forces.

British apology highlights a high-stakes trade drama in the 'special relationship'

Britain's outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a news conference in London last week. May's longtime confidant, Mark Sedwill, is believed to be the front-runner to assume the post of British ambassador to the U.S. (Stefan Rousseau/Reuters)

If Kim Darroch's job as British ambassador to the U.S. isn't in jeopardy, spare a thought for his once-presumed successor.

Darroch's leaked private cables, which described President Donald Trump as "inept" and "insecure," are no doubt a personal and professional embarrassment. But the diplomat may have been the collateral damage, not the primary target of the leaks, say U.K.-based political analysts monitoring the fallout.

Trump lashed out at Darroch, tweeting on Monday that the U.S. "will no longer deal with" the ambassador, and claiming, despite Darroch's reportedly solid standing in diplomatic circles, that he is "not liked or well thought of." Hints that Trump wants a new British envoy should give a shot in the arm to the anti-European-Union crowd desperate for a wide-ranging U.S.-U.K. trade deal.

Even to pragmatic supporters of plans to withdraw Britain from the EU, though, Darroch's imminent departure was predictable — he was expected to step down at the end of the year. To that end, experts believe forward-looking Brexiteers had another goal: to pre-emptively sink Darroch's presumed replacement, current cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill.

Two-way trade between the U.S. and the U.K. appears to be the ultimate prize.

"The golden apple of British diplomats is arguably to be ambassador in Washington. And it's a job that's coming open in January," said Leslie Vinjamuri, head of the Americas program at London's Chatham House think-tank.

The U.K. government said it will investigate the source of the leak of memos from its ambassador to the U.S., Kim Darroch, that disparage the Trump administration. (Larry French/Getty Images for Capitol File Magazine)

The leak of private cables disparaging the U.S. president appear designed to show daylight between two allies that have long touted their "special relationship." It raises possible questions about whether the civil service has its house in order, Vinjamuri said, and it gives Brexit supporters ammunition to cast doubt on the short list of successors for Darroch.

Sedwill, a longtime confidant to outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May, is widely seen as the top candidate for the ambassadorship. But he's regarded as skittish about a no-deal Brexit.

"The suspicion is that the leak is aimed at creating an opening in Washington for someone more closely aligned with hard-line Brexiteers," Vinjamuri said.

With trade on their minds, British officials are treading lightly. The timing of the leaks is delicate for U.S.-U.K. relations, and the rush from a British trade official to apologize to the president's daughter Ivanka Trump illustrates why.

The U.K. is poised to select a new Conservative prime minister within a month, likely the staunch Brexiteer Boris Johnson. Meanwhile, Trump last month teased the promise of a "phenomenal" trade deal between the U.S. and the United Kingdom if the U.K. exits the EU.

Sedwill gives evidence at a Commons committee hearing in London in 2014. Experts suggest the leak of cables might be aimed at quashing his chances of going to Washington as ambassador. (Reuters)

In a sign of just how tricky bilateral relations have become in light of that dangled promise, British Trade Minister Liam Fox plans to meet with Ivanka Trump in Washington and deliver a personal apology.

"Beyond a shadow of a doubt, yes, maintaining a close relationship with the U.S. is going to be key," Vinjamuri said. "Liam Fox has always been pro-Brexit. Part of wanting Brexit is wanting Britain to have a free hand to negotiate independent trade deals, knowing that will be absolutely essential."

Yet Britain is still a long way from making independent trade deals.

In the wake of Brexit, should it happen on Oct. 31 as promised, Fox's apology to Trump will be about shoring up a key political currency for the U.S. president — personal relationships.

Keeping up appearances

"The U.K. will no doubt be looking to the United States to strike a mutually beneficial trade deal in the not-too-distant future," said Thomas Gift, a political science lecturer at University College London. "That task will already be hard, but it will be doubly so if there's bad blood with President Trump."

The apology, he said, is to ensure negotiations don't get off track before they begin in earnest.

Not that a U.S.-U.K. trade deal will be easy to achieve. Trump has said, for example, he wants the U.K.'s cherished National Health Service "on the table" for negotiations for a post-Brexit trade deal — an idea that many Britons find objectionable.

Ashley Prime, a former British deputy consul general in Toronto, said damaging Darroch's reputation is "the minor story." As he sees it, the leak appears to have more to do with wanting to neutralize Sedwill's chances of attaining the post, clearing the way for a Brexit hardliner to take the post.

White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump, daughter of the president, speaks to U.S. troops in South Korea. She is due to meet with the British trade minister and will expect to receive an apology for the leaked cables. (Reuters)

Someone who might fit the bill could be the far-right populist and former leader of the anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage.​​​​​​ He already has Trump's confidence and friendship. In a November 2016 tweet, Trump endorsed Farage for the ambassador posting.

As divisive as Farage is in the U.K., he's also seen as being as close as one can get to being Trump's man.

"In this day and age, when diplomacy is not what it used to be, you may as well get somebody like that," Prime said.

Farage has expressed outrage over the content of the Darroch leaks. But the ambassador's remarks about a "dysfunctional" White House are nothing new or unheard-of among Trump's own staffers, some of whom have left and published tell-alls about White House palace intrigue.

Criticisms in the leaked memos alleging that Trump's decision-making can be rash, or that he might have colluded with Russians in the 2016 presidential election, are poorly kept secrets.

All of which suggests an element of faux outrage on the part of those calling for Darroch's resignation. Candid diplomatic memos sent by ambassadors back home are the "bread and butter" of diplomatic work, Prime said.

What was remarkable, he said, was the indignation about criticisms that essentially said nothing particularly new about the Trump administration, but were nonetheless politicized.

"Ask yourself: What did we learn from what Kim Darroch said in these leaks? Nothing," he said.

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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