The old Washington saying goes that if you want a friend you can trust, get a dog. In July 2019, Kim Darroch, the former British ambassador to the US, needed a dog. Badly. First came news that the Mail on Sunday had got hold of a series of leaked diplomatic cables and a highly classified letter, which outlined his candid assessment of Donald Trump and the first six months of his presidency. That was always going to cause “please return to your seats and stow away your tray tables” turbulence. But how much would only become apparent when the president exercised his Twitter thumbs. Then came the TV debate for the Tory leadership when Boris Johnson, the out-and-out favourite, conspicuously failed to offer Darroch his support.
Collateral Damage is a sharply written book, full of dry and wry observations of a lifelong public servant who, having spent his career shunning the spotlight, suddenly finds himself at the heart of a media firestorm, incurring the wrath of a thin-skinned president and a thick-skinned soon-to-be prime minister who seemingly doesn’t want to expend political capital saving our man in Washington.
The weekend before the Mail on Sunday leak, I had spent the day with Lord Darroch (as he is now) and his wife, Vanessa. We had played tennis in the morning and had lunch on the terrace of the famous British ambassador’s residence on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, designed by Edwin Lutyens. The world could not have been set more fair: the night before, the president’s key adviser, Kellyanne Conway, had thrown a party for him to mark the success of President Trump’s state visit to London to coincide with the 75th anniversary of D-day; the corporate world was circling with lucrative non-exec roles, thinktanks wanted his expertise. Here was a man at the peak of his powers. A week later, all that lay in ashes.
The book relives the nightmare and the drama. At first the White House gives him encouraging noises. It will be survivable, they say. But all would depend on how the president reacts. At first it’s bad, but not terrible. He hasn’t served his country well, the president tells reporters: “we are not a big fan of that man”. But a tweet on 8 July is much more ominous: “we will no longer deal with him”, Trump wrote to his many millions of followers.
If that was a serious blow, the coup de grace was, arguably, administered by Boris Johnson in the leadership debate. There is still enough of the lifelong diplomat in this book that Darroch doesn’t go in for character assassination, but you don’t need to be Hercule Poirot to figure out what he thinks. He recounts the conversation with Johnson afterwards: “Boris said that he was sorry if what he had said had contributed to my decision; absolutely not his intention. He had been trying only to say that a televised debate was not the appropriate forum in which to discuss my future prospects. We left it at that. There was a certain tension in the atmosphere but our parting words were amicable.”
I am told there was fury in Massachusetts Avenue over the way Johnson briefed the call to the media, but Darroch doesn’t explore this. It leaves me wondering whether someone in Whitehall sat over the manuscript with a sharp blue pencil.
For Trump, there is respect, if not admiration. “He had a killer’s instinct for the weaknesses of his opponents, and a fairground barker’s gift for pulling in the crowds,” he observes. And this: “Trump understood grievances, because he was himself a tightly wound ball of deeply held grievances.” You can see how easy, fluent phrase-making like this got him into trouble when his thoughts meant “for your eyes only” reached everyone’s.
But this book is much bigger and more ambitious than a first-person “rise and fall”. What gives it its narrative force is that the two central characters in the book – Trump and Johnson – are also the emblems of the surge in populism, and the two history-shaping events in US/UK politics: the EU referendum on 23 June 2016, and the US general election a few months later in November. It’s also driven by how the power of social media was shaping reality. “The politician who commands social media rules the world. And it is a world in which outrage is contagious,” Darroch says. “You have to realise that the political centre ground has become completely depopulated. The way you win elections now is getting your base riled up: making sure every single one of them gets out and votes.”
For all these events, Darroch had a ringside view – the person who was defending British membership of the EU when he was our man in Brussels, the man who worked hand-in-glove with David Cameron as national security adviser in Downing Street. And then the person who was trying to sell Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement to a slightly bewildered Washington.
If I have a criticism of the book, it is that there isn’t more whodunnit. Why was an anonymous diplomat being leaked against in such an incendiary way? What was the goal? Who was behind it? Who won by it? Darroch glides lightly over motives and suspects. It was either someone in the Foreign Office who thought he was too pro-European and too anti-Trump, someone who was after his job and was determined to bring him down. Or he suggests darkly, a foreign power – but doesn’t expand upon that.
In Washington, a city whose currency is gossip and backstabbing, there was a fair bit of muttering about and against Darroch; from people not a million miles away from the US state department and the office of the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. And some predated the leak. Is it possible that Britain’s ambassador to Washington was brought down by our great partner in the “special relationship”?
Maybe this is something we will never find out. But this book is filled with great vignettes and classy analysis from the man who until just over a year ago sat at the top of the diplomatic tree. And there is nothing dusty or dry in his account of dealing with the twin forces of Boris and Donald, and how they’ve shaped politics – and his life.
• Collateral Damage: Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump by Kim Darroch is published by HarperCollins (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15