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It was with deep regret that, yesterday, the Government accepted the resignation of Her Majesty’s ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch. Over a distinguished 42-year career, Sir Kim has served his country with the utmost dedication and distinction. He brought dispassionate insight and directness to his role. It is an outrage that a selection of his very professional reports back to London should have been leaked.
Quite rightly, Sir Kim received the full support of the Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet. In an act of selfless duty, Sir Kim made the decision to resign in order to relieve the pressure on his family and colleagues and to protect the UK-US relationship. The Government profoundly regret that this episode has led Sir Kim to decide to resign. The tributes that have been paid to him from across both Houses, which I would add to, and from so many other corners of this country and others, have been fitting and rightly deserved.
Before we open to general questioning, may I thank the Minister of State for that pithy but very gracious statement? Many people in the Chamber will have had personal interaction with Sir Kim. He is an outstanding public servant, a point that has been beautifully encapsulated by the Minister of State. I call Liz McInnes. [Interruption.] I do apologise—Mr McFadden.
I thank the Minister for his opening statement. The resignation of Sir Kim Darroch marks a dark moment for our democracy and for the standing of the United Kingdom. He is a hugely respected professional diplomat with an exemplary record of serving both Labour and Conservative Governments. In writing his dispatches, he did nothing wrong. He was doing his job. It is his job to tell it as he sees it. He carried out his duties in the finest traditions of the civil service. These traditions are not just rusty relics from the past; they are essential to the proper workings of our parliamentary democracy. His response has been characterised by dignity and professionalism, which is more than can be said for others in this affair.
Any other President would have brushed this off and seen the importance of the bigger picture, but the response that we got was the opposite of mature leadership. Thankfully, the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States is bigger than this matter and bigger than this President. The response of Boris Johnson was an appalling abandonment of someone in the firing line. Real leaders protect their people; they do not throw them to the wolves because they can sniff a prize for themselves. His actions were a chilling warning of what is to come if he becomes Prime Minister.
How can those in the civil service be expected to do their jobs properly now? How can they operate if they fear leaks, followed by abandonment by our political leaders? What are our ambassadors supposed to write home, from whatever country they are in—“The President is perfect. The people are happy. They sing his name in the street”? What use would that be from our postings abroad? How can civil servants advise Ministers at home if they feel that candid advice will be taken as evidence of disloyalty and treachery?
Those who welcome Kim Darroch’s departure believe that we need a civil service of true believers. They are profoundly wrong. We do not need a civil service of true believers; we need a civil service able to do its job without fear or favour, and that has become much harder this week. Does the Minister share the concern that this attack on the civil service is part of a broader attack on institutions essential to the functioning of our democracy—judges called enemies of the people; MPs called traitors to their country; broadcasters vilified as having hidden agendas?
Our democracy is under fire. Those who value and cherish it must speak up and defend it. Whipping up anger against one institution after another and dressing it up as an attack on the establishment is doing profound harm to the country. We must call it out for the insidious agenda that it is. I conclude by asking the Minister whether this is understood by at least some in Government, so that the damage done this week does not continue into the future.
My apologies to the right hon. Gentleman, whose question it was my privilege to select.
The right hon. Gentleman has spoken with authority and wisdom. What he said should be pinned on every wall as an instruction to people on how to act, respectively, in public life and about public life. I commend him for what he has just said.
We have emphasised throughout the importance of ambassadors being able to provide honest, unvarnished assessments of the politics in their country, and to be able to report without fear or favour. We will continue to support civil servants in carrying out that duty. On Tuesday and again today, I have been very grateful to those on the Opposition Benches for the support and cross-party unity they have shown. Their decency, with all those across the whole country who support officials when they are under attack, is something for which I personally am very grateful. When I spoke to Sir Kim yesterday, he was too. He asked me to pass on to the entire House his gratitude.
The right hon. Gentleman is right about the decay in our institutions. We can have a ferocious contest across the Floor of the House, but we have to do that under certain rules and certain codes of conduct—being able to say hello in the bar afterwards, having expressed our differences. So many codes of conduct are in freefall. It is leading, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, to unacceptable attacks on judges, Members of Parliament and broadcasters. Attacks of that sort are a fundamental attack on all the basic freedoms within the democracy in which we operate.
While the failure of the former Foreign Secretary to leap to the defence of Sir Kim shows a lack of leadership that is lamentable, is not the priority now to restore the shattered confidence of our diplomatic corps? Is not the best way to do that to identify the miserable perpetrator of this act and then to see them charged with a criminal offence?
I hope the House will understand if I hold back today from making any further comment on my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson. I said enough yesterday to make my position entirely clear.
In terms of the confidence we need to have in our officials and their morale, the permanent under-secretary in the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald, had an all-staff meeting yesterday, which included people who were able to come in on phones and by video conference. The mood was palpable. There is deep upset, but a fantastic united defence of Sir Kim Darroch. I think and I hope that the very, very deft manner in which the PUS handled that meeting will have absolutely reassured our diplomats and officials everywhere that they have our full support. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the leaking. I really hope that we find who did this, and that their name and the consequences of what they did become very, very clear indeed.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr McFadden on securing it. He spoke for almost the whole House, and certainly everyone in the country, as indeed did the Minister in his response, in expressing his dismay about the circumstances that have led to the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch—who has had to resign, let us remember, simply for doing his job and telling the truth about what is happening in Washington.
While Sir Kim is entirely innocent and can leave office with his head held high, there are many guilty parties in this affair who should be hanging their heads in shame. First, there is whoever is responsible for leaking the memos. Then there is Donald Trump, and his ridiculous temper tantrums. Then there is the outgoing Prime Minister, who has indulged Donald Trump so much but received nothing but disrespect in return.
For me, however, the biggest villain of all is the man who is about to become our Prime Minister. He had the chance on Tuesday night—not just once, but six times—to defend Sir Kim and oppose Donald Trump, but instead he made an active choice to throw our man in Washington under the bus. It was the most craven and despicable act of cowardice that I have seen from any candidate for public office, let alone someone running to be Prime Minister. It sends the worst possible signal to our diplomatic service abroad, and it should send warning signs to our whole country—if we thought that the current Prime Minister was bad when it came to her spineless attitude towards Donald Trump, then things are about to get a whole lot worse.
Will the Minister therefore ensure that a new ambassador to the US is appointed before the next Prime Minister takes office, so that we still have at least one UK representative willing to speak truth to power in Washington?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady—at least for her kind words about me. I do feel obliged to defend my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I think that in these difficult times the relationship between the Prime Minister and the President has obviously seen us disagreeing on some things, such as the Iran nuclear deal, so it is inevitable that that relationship has needed a lot of work. But I do not think that my right hon. Friend has been spineless; indeed, I think that she has been very skilful. She has done her utmost, with a high degree of success, to ensure that the relationship has been functioning in the best possible way. The next ambassador will be appointed in the usual way: by the Prime Minister, on the Foreign Secretary’s recommendation, with the approval of Her Majesty the Queen.
May I first welcome the comments of my friend Mr McFadden and my right hon. Friend the Minister? This has been a very difficult moment for British diplomacy, and it is worth thinking about why that is so.
This is a direct challenge to a sovereign nation and its ability to nominate its own representative. If sovereignty does not allow a nation to choose its own representative, frankly, what is it but servitude? That is why Britain must stand up for our envoys. If we do not think that they are up to it, we must replace them, but we must not be bullied into seeing them kicked out or silenced. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to assure me, and everyone in this House, that Her Majesty’s Government will always stand up for those we send abroad, military or civilian, and back them as necessary, in the interests of the British people and no one else?
I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said consistently over the past few days. I thank him for his response and his support, and for that of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which he chairs. I am also grateful for his kind words about the permanent under-secretary when, at short notice, he appeared before his Committee yesterday as a witness about these leaks. The permanent under-secretary very much appreciated that the Committee was able to appreciate what he said to it in that session.
Yes—we appoint ambassadors. Nobody else does. They are Her Majesty’s ambassadors and nobody else’s. We will also stand up for them, and I can tell from what has been said by Members on the other side of the House that if ever there were a Government of a different colour, that Government—I hope—would too. It appears that they would.
I thank Mr McFadden not only for securing the urgent question but for his remarks, which I think reflected the views of many of us in this House. I also thank the Minister for his strong remarks over the past few hours, and the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for his remarks. They have put some members of their own party to shame over these past few hours. I also want to thank Simon McDonald. The letters he exchanged with Kim Darroch show a dignity that is lacking in some members of the Conservative party.
It is so important that ambassadors and other officials know that they have our support and that of their colleagues. I hope—and I hope that the Minister will give us a fuller answer on this than he gave the Labour spokesperson—that we will have a speedy replacement, because the role of ambassador to the United States is a key one. The civil service system has been damaged; they must be able to speak truth to power.
I think that it is a disgrace that a member of the Conservative party, who sits on the Minister’s own Benches, said that we do not need to defend diplomats when they are doing their jobs. What is the Minister’s message about that? Good governance relies on candour. People from all parties might not like that sometimes, and might hear things we do not like, but it goes to the heart of what makes good government for everyone.
The Minister was right to say that the former Foreign Secretary threw the former ambassador under the bus. President Trump cannot be held to account by this House for his actions and his words, unfortunately. Others can. Time and again the former Foreign Secretary has shown that he is unfit for office. Does the Minister agree with me that he should never be allowed to hold the role of Prime Minister?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bowling me such easy balls and I will endeavour to answer as frankly as I can. He will forgive me if I do not commit to a timescale, simply because I do not know: I am not in a position to inform the House with authority. I would merely observe that if one makes a speedy appointment, it is very likely that one would create a vacancy elsewhere, so what is solved in one corner of the world becomes a gap in another. It is very important that we appoint a new ambassador in the proper way so that we get the very best person appointed in the best possible way for the long-term interests of the UK and our relationship with the US.
Where I can totally agree with the hon. Gentleman is in saying that it is everyone’s duty—and that of everyone in this House—to defend our ambassadors. They are our ambassadors doing their duty. If they do something terribly wrong and break all the rules, that is altogether different, but Sir Kim Darroch was, as Liz McInnes said from the Labour Front Bench, doing his job and appears to have been punished, as it were, for doing so. We must defend every ambassador who is properly doing their job. We will and we should. As for his final question, I hope that Stephen Gethins will allow me to defer that a little.
There are those who break all the rules of decency who think they can benefit from it themselves. Quite who is benefiting from this, I cannot see, but what is quite clear is that the interests of the country do not benefit. This is an absolutely unacceptable leak that has had a very significant consequence that is detrimental to our interest as a country and of course, in an utterly unfair way, to the personal life of a highly capable ambassador and his family.
I congratulate Mr McFadden on securing this important urgent question and on the manner in which he put it, and I thank the Minister for his remarks. Sir Kim Darroch was and is a distinguished and principled man who has given huge service to our country, and we must all thank him.
Does the Minister understand the deep concern about the fact that the man who is about to be our Prime Minister repeatedly refused to back Sir Kim and the civil service? That concern is not only about the implications for this case and for our diplomatic service more generally, but about the implications of our potentially having a Prime Minister who will be pushed about on all sorts of issues by the bully that is President Trump. I agree with the Minister that that is the behaviour of an utter wimp
I seem to recall that that was one of the kinder words that I used yesterday. [Laughter.]
There is one thing that I have omitted to say today, which I hope I can say now in response to the hon. Lady’s comments. Sir Kim Darroch’s career is not over. I hope the House will recognise that although this is a difficult moment, it does not mean that that is the end of his career, and I hope that the Foreign Office and the entire apparatus of government will look after him, appreciate his merits, and ensure that he can be redeployed somewhere else for the benefit of our United Kingdom.
As for the hon. Lady’s somewhat more party political questions, again, I think I would prefer to concentrate on the specific details of the question put by Mr McFadden, and to concentrate on the merits of Sir Kim Darroch rather than the—merits of anyone else.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said earlier about the critical importance of the impartiality of the civil service. I do not feel that he needs to add those comments, so may I ask him instead to expand on how he sees the special relationship going in the next few weeks?
I commend to Members Henry Kissinger’s book “White House Years”. Among the many thousands of pages of his memoirs is, as I recall, a remarkable description of the special relationship. In essence, he says that the relationship is not just that between two people who are Heads of State, or Heads of Government. It is really about how, on so many layers and in so many areas—security, culture, business—so much between our two countries works, from day to day, on an assumed foundation of trust. That will continue, and that is why the web of affection and activity between our two countries will never be destroyed by a difficult moment such as this.
I think that I can, in all honesty, answer my hon. Friend’s question by saying that the relationship will remain special—that a relationship between two English-speaking nations with histories that are so entwined, and friendships and activities which will never be destroyed, will continue. I hope that it does continue, and I hope that both countries thrive and flourish.
I commend the Minister for the integrity with which he has conducted himself over the last 24 hours. He rightly drew the House’s attention to the remarks of my right hon. Friend Mr McFadden, but may I draw the country’s attention to Sir Kim Darroch’s resignation letter and the response from the permanent under-secretary, which are two very good examples of why our Foreign Office is respected around the world? People’s attention should be drawn to them, rather than to the comments of Boris Johnson.
The Minister said that the application process for a new ambassador in Washington would be undertaken in the “proper way”. May I encourage him to ensure that the “proper way” means a proper application process through the Foreign Office, advertised externally, so that the Foreign Office can choose the most appropriate person for the job, rather than making a political appointment and choosing someone who would be a stooge of the next Prime Minister?
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and agree with him, and I thank him for his comments about Sir Kim Darroch and Sir Simon McDonald, who have both conducted themselves in such an exemplary way; we can be proud of both. In terms of the application, it would be normal to do exactly as the hon. Gentleman has said, and that is what I expect will happen. It will be a proper appointment process in the normal way, so that from the pool of talent that we have we can, I hope, find the very best person to go as Her Majesty’s ambassador to Washington.
As my right hon. Friend has outlined, it is absolutely fundamental that Foreign and Commonwealth Office employees remain candid, irrespective of the issues that they face in their host countries, but what further steps can he take to reinforce the imperative message that they can continue to do such an important job without threat?
To a large extent, elsewhere it is business as usual. On a daily basis exactly that sort of process is happening: our ambassadors and consuls across the world will send in their perceptions, their advice and their views of what they think is happening in their host country. The key thing that I can assure my hon. Friend of is that we as Ministers will fully defend our officials in doing that to the high professional standard that they always have done.
The loss of Sir Kim Darroch in this way diminishes our standing in the world; it also diminishes our vision of ourselves, and there are further implications. The Minister, who has spoken eloquently, must acknowledge the concern about having a Prime Minister who is capable of such craven cowardice leading our negotiations with the US on a free trade agreement. What other national assets—our manufacturing, our NHS, our farming—can consider themselves safe?
I take issue with the hon. Lady for saying that this has diminished us. We can hold our heads high in the world; we have behaved with integrity. This of course is an absolutely unprecedented course of events in our relationship with the US, or indeed with anybody else. I do not quite agree that it has diminished us in the way the hon. Lady implies. In negotiations on trade, the UK interests must be fully upheld, and trade talks are far more complicated and take far longer than a lot of people have been pretending. In the meantime, though, I hope that in all other respects our bilateral relations with the United States can continue and that we can get over this and draw a line under this moment so that the interests of commerce, culture and everything else can continue as they have in the past.
I understand that this is a fast-moving situation, but can the Minister give any further details on the inquiry? Has it begun or will it begin soon? If this was a hack and not a leak, does the Minister have confidence in the Firecrest system and the system that will replace it that the FCO will use?
Yes, I have confidence in the system; what has happened here is that somebody has abused it. The inquiry is under way, and I hope the House will understand that it is probably unhelpful to give a running commentary on what it might have found from one day to another, but it is going ahead very fully. As I and others have said in this House, if it turns out that we find the culprit and they have broken the law, the police may well become involved and there may well be criminal proceedings.
This is a truly exceptional moment: not for 175 years has the Head of State of a nation friendly to the United Kingdom said that they would refuse to deal with a British envoy sent by the British state. This is behaving worse than Chavez’s Venezuela, which would never have done such thing; it is behaving worse than Iran. And to be honest the concatenation of events has humiliated this country. I want to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States of America, but I also want to stand shoulder to shoulder first with our Foreign Office diplomats, and for that matter with our Prime Minister, who has been humiliated directly by the United States President. When we are appointing a new ambassador to the United States of America in these truly exceptional moments, will the Minister make sure that the candidates for that post appear before the Foreign Affairs Committee so that this House can take a view?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is unprecedented. I do not think that this has ever happened before. As the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East said, a lot of these codes of conduct and assumed rules of the game are rather being turned on their head. This means that the normal process of diplomacy has become extraordinarily complicated by such trends in the world. The normal responses and expected reactions have to be crafted differently in circumstances such as this. In that sense, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In terms of having approval hearings before his Committee, of course I cannot give that guarantee—
While acknowledging Sir Kim’s exemplary public service, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees that we must now move on from this serious event and start to rebuild our relationship with our most important and closest ally?
Of course we have to draw a line under this, because the world does not stop and diplomacy is needed to ensure that such an important relationship as this has a proper functioning diplomatic structure. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we have to move on from this and draw a line, and I hope that having a new ambassador will enable us to do so at all the layers, once the new appointment is in place.
The House is certainly aware of my view that everybody should have been there in full support of Kim Darroch and should continue to extend that full support to him without any kind of criticism whatever or any stain on his character because, as Liz McInnes said, he was doing his job and doing it well.
Like everyone else in the House, I have nothing but the highest respect for Sir Kim Darroch. Does the House agree that he has acted in the highest tradition of the civil and diplomatic service in so far as he has laid down a job that he must have considered to be right at the top of his career in the interest of his country?
These attacks on, and the undermining of, the legislature, the judiciary, the civil service and the press are profoundly worrying. They have frightening historical echoes of dangerous political forces, and I applaud my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East for his wise and moving comments.. His illustration of what happens when we have a cowed diplomatic service should haunt us. The Minister has responded with dignity and cross-party inclusivity, so what else does he think we in this House and the other place, and particularly the new Prime Minister and Cabinet, should do to reverse those damaging and worrying trends?
We should stick together in defence of the standards that apply to us all. We should ensure that we all uphold those standards in everything we do, and try to keep our political attacks on a higher and non-personal plane than we so often see in this House, in our politics and, more deplorably, on social media.
How right the Minister is to deplore personal attacks, especially those on senior colleagues in my party. The attacking of colleagues is completely wrong, and the people involved should be ashamed of themselves. I congratulate Mr McFadden on asking this urgent question, but there should have been a statement. The Government should not have been dragged here; they should have volunteered a statement. This is an unprecedented event. Confidential, sensitive cables have been leaked within the Foreign Office. The Minister has to tell us what he is doing to discover the culprit, because if we do not get the culprit, what ambassador will ever trust sending cables to the Foreign Office again?
I am not sure where my hon. Friend has been over the past couple of days, but this is my second response to an urgent question on this topic, and the Prime Minister made her own comments yesterday in Prime Minister’s Question Time. There have been several clear statements to this House on this issue and about the nature of the inquiry, so that should satisfy my hon. Friend for the time being.
One can only imagine what the American ambassador’s cables say about governance in this country. Maybe we shall find out some time—but hopefully not, eh? How confident is the right hon. Gentleman that this is a leak, not a hack? Will he also please rule out any suggestion that Nigel Farage will be the new ambassador in Washington?
We do not at the moment have any evidence that this was a hack, so our focus is on finding someone within the system who has illicitly released these communications, which cover periods both very recent and from two years ago. That is where the inquiry is primarily focused.
Sir Kim Darroch is the epitome of all that is the very best about Britain and our institutions. Notwithstanding the enormous pressures of Brexit and all its consequences, does my right hon. Friend agree that our diplomatic and civil services are fundamental and vital cornerstones of British governance that none of us must ever undermine?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. In my years as a Minister, I have always seen ambassadors serve the interests of their country and the Government they serve. I have seen that in terms of diplomacy, and I have also seen that whatever their private views—by and large, one never knows their private views—on the issue of Brexit and preparation, they have gone full tilt in support of the requests and requirements of Ministers to take all the steps that may be necessary to cope with that process. They are the envy of the world. One of the great components of our soft power is the reputation of our diplomats for professionalism and integrity, and we must never see that undermined. I know perfectly well that if the Government were of a different colour—looking across the Chamber—our ambassadors would serve them just as well.
The right hon. Gentleman, whose conduct this week has been exemplary, just said that there is no evidence that this was an attack rather than a leak. With respect, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s investigation into disinformation has seen a whole web of connections, which include many of the characters involved in this very sad tale, so will he at least retain an open mind about the fact that this may well have been an attack, either from an enemy or even from an ally?
I do not, in any way, dismiss what the hon. Gentleman says. I take it at face value as a perfectly legitimate observation about where we face risk and about what might have happened. I have absolutely no doubt that, under the terms of the inquiry, it will do everything to investigate the elements he describes. It is just that we have not seen it yet. Although I do not want to give a running commentary, I want to advise the House of as much as I know so that I do not hold anything back.
Now that we no longer have an ambassador to the United States, who is in charge of the British embassy in Washington? Do they have the same level of ambassadorial access to the US Administration, or do we have to wait for a formal ambassadorial appointment?
We have an enormous embassy in Washington. It is standard practice in the diplomatic world that when an ambassador is away or being replaced, a chargé takes over. We have a highly capable deputy ambassador called Michael Tatham, who is assuming the responsibilities that Kim Darroch had until yesterday. I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that this will work seamlessly and that all the diplomatic functions we expect of an embassy will continue in very capable, professional hands.
It is important for the House to pause and reflect on the fact that this is the first time in modern British history that a third country has been able to dictate who should be Her Majesty’s ambassador, and this is not a hostile state but an ally. Is the Minister concerned that other countries might now seek to take a similar approach? What more could the British Government do to make it very clear that it is Her Majesty’s appointment as to who should be our ambassador?
I suppose, strictly speaking, it was who it should not be rather than who it should be, but let us not dance on that pin. This is unprecedented, and it is absolutely right that it is not for host countries to choose who can be sent to them by other countries. I am as confident as I possibly can be that this phenomenon will not be replicated anywhere else in the world, and we are absolutely resolute in making it quite clear that appointments of Her Majesty’s ambassadors are made by the United Kingdom, and not by anybody else. Once they are appointed, we will defend them to the hilt.
Does my right hon. Friend not feel it is incumbent on every Member of Parliament to back our excellent diplomats and civil servants and that my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson should come to the House and apologise?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his words. He points out what is evident to anybody who visited Washington when Sir Kim was ambassador. There was a very cheerful team and a great esprit de corps. He was very popular, and there were very good parties, which I hope will continue.
Yes, I hope I am allowed back. Sir Kim was absolutely excellent.
The other thing my hon. Friend David Morris allows me to point out is that one of the great tragedies of this is that the leaked communications were not at all representative of the tenor of the vast majority of those emanating from Washington. If the President were able to read them, I think he would have been perfectly happy.
Attacks on the fundamental pillars of our democracy, whether it is Parliament, the judiciary, the civil service or the media, are coming not just from an organised alt-right but from the left. Silence in the face of that is complicity, so may I commend the Minister, the shadow Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr McFadden and the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for what they have said?
Would not the best way to send a message about the independence of this country and our ability to choose our own ambassadors and, frankly, to defend the Prime Minister and her office be for the Prime Minister to immediately nominate her ambassador to Washington, to represent the Queen, this Government and, indeed, the next Prime Minister?
I absolutely understand what the hon. Gentleman says about the stamp of authority that would be secured by doing this very speedily, but I reiterate that we want to make sure that we get the very best person. It would be a pity if, in the interest of alacrity, we chose a No. 2 rather than a No. 1. It is not for me to make any further comment on that. I do not know whose name might be in the frame, but that is a matter for the Prime Minister to decide.