Midsummer madness: U.K. roiled by resignation, Brexit, Johnson in the wings

The tennis balls are flying at Wimbledon, Nando employees are handing out free peri peri sauce at Oxford Circus, and sweaty tourists are lining up for last-minute theatre tickets on Shaftsbury Avenue.

Oh yes. And Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, has resigned after a leak earlier this week of diplomatic memos that described the U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration as dysfunctional, clumsy, faction-riven and inept.

Welcome to the midsummer madness that is Britain, 2019, with just over three months to go before the U.K. is scheduled to leave the European Union. Again.

Trump didn’t lose any time responding to the leaks, firing back a series of tweets calling Darroch a “pompous fool” and making it clear the White House would no longer deal with the British Ambassador.

“The wacky ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy,” Trump wrote in one tweet.

“He should speak to his country, and Prime Minister May, about their failed Brexit negotiation, and not be upset with my criticism of how badly it was handled.”

Darroch drew widespread praise in the U.K. for his work in Washington and elsewhere. Boris Johnson, however, refused to say he would keep Darroch in the post if he wins the Conservative leadership and become prime minister July 22. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

A transatlantic brouhaha like this would have been a major scandal at the best of times. Coming as it does with Britain thrashing around on seas directed both by the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and a Conservative party leadership race expected to deliver a new prime minister on July 22, it lands like a juggernaut.

“The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like,” Darroch said Wednesday in a letter sent to the British Foreign Office.

Critics are now accusing the front-runner in the leadership race, former London mayor Boris Johnson, of sealing Darroch’s fate in a televised debate Tuesday night by repeatedly failing to say whether he should remain in his post despite the British cabinet’s full support.

“Traitor Boris Backs Trump Not Britain” boomed the Daily Mirror newspaper’s front page on Wednesday. “Wannabe Prime Minister Johnson Refuses SIX times to Support Our Man in U.S.”

“He has revealed himself to be a shallow man willing to take advantage of an illegal leak to sack a man who had dedicated himself public life,” was the judgment from the left-leaning Guardian newspaper’s diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour.

“[Johnson’s] refusal to back him was in my view pretty contemptible,” British Conservative MP Sir Alan Duncan told the BBC in an interview, “but also not in the interest of the country he’s trying to lead.”

Duncan is backing Johnson’s opponent, the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who called Darroch’s decision to resign a “black day for British diplomacy.”

Johnson, having refused to commit to Darroch, holds a beer at Wetherspoon’s Metropolitan Bar in London on Wednesday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

“Leadership is standing by your man.”

Prime Minister Theresa May, now essentially in a caretaker role, told the House of Commons on Wednesday she deeply regretted Darroch’s decision.

“Good government depends on public servants being able to give full and frank advice,” May said. “I want all our public servants to have the confidence to be able to do that.”

But few are listening to Theresa May these days, and she herself has been accused in the past of pandering to the U.S. president’s ego in her eagerness to secure a post-Brexit trade deal with the United States.

Her efforts to afford Trump a state visit to the U.K. earlier this year, during which the president and his family were lavishly feted by the Queen and other Royals, didn’t spare her from more criticism from Trump, who called her “foolish” for ignoring his advice in this week’s tweet tirade. 

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in the Commons Wednesday, praising Darroch. (Jessica Taylor/The Associated Press)

As for the tow-haired Johnson, he was accused of crying crocodile tears when he heard the news of Darroch’s resignation, saying he regretted it.

Some analysts believe Johnson’s failure to support Darroch could backfire on him, if it was indeed a deliberate strategy.

But others say Johnson’s perceived closeness to Trump will matter more to the only ones who matter in the leadership contest, the card carrying conservative members who will decide the issue by postal ballot.

“They’re looking for a Dunkirk spirit or something,” said Ashley Prime, a former British foreign office diplomat who calls Johnson’s failure to back Darroch “pretty disgraceful.”

Prime worked with Darroch in Jamaica and says he was well respected. But he also says the only thing that would “mortally wound” Johnson in the leadership contest at this point would be if the diplomatic leaks were linked to him.

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