Trying to get Donald Trump on your side is like trying to become friends with the coolest kid in high school: Stick around smiling and shouting sweet nothings until the king requires a peasant to clean his sneakers. The worst sycophants are often smart enough to keep the act going — never outshine the master, or you risk losing everything.
Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are some of the cleverest sycophants around. They’re popular kids, too, only with a smaller circle of grovelers. It’s remarkable to see the fiery, scheming Farage turn into a coy, complimentary child next to his shining star on stage. And last night, even the bellowing, Brexiteering Boris sided with the current American president over the British foreign office.
For context: This morning, longtime civil servant Sir Kim Darroch resigned as U.K. ambassador to the U.S. His reason? A series of leaked emails published by the Daily Mail on Sunday.
Darroch’s emails were scathing — he labelled the Trump administration “clumsy and inept.” But they were also perfectly within the remit of his job. He expressed uncontroversial facts about the fulfillment of domestic policy, offered an unsurprising assessment on the possibility of a future trade relationship between the two countries, and even went so far as to recommend more active engagement with the White House, warning Westminster not to launch personalized attacks on the president or follow the example of France and Germany in shunning him. They were also sent in private and may have been leaked by a source intending to bring him down. But regardless, Darroch is not a political actor. His job is to report with candor, not mince his words.
Trump responded by insulting him on Twitter, and the administration announced that he would no longer be invited to White House proceedings. Darroch’s position was severely compromised: Either the British would find another ambassador, or Trump would find another friend.
The Anglo-American relationship has always been integral to both countries, and Great Britain currently needs the United States more than ever. But never before has a foreign power been able to force out a British diplomat. If it happens once, every ambassadorial position is compromised. Any potential prime minister ought to have stood up for the civil service — condemn the leak but also condemn a foreign attempt to dictate internal U.K. affairs.
During last night’s Tory-leadership debate, Boris Johnson had the opportunity to do exactly that. He could have protected his country’s integrity and called on Trump to change his tune. But he didn’t. In typical Johnson fashion, he prioritized electoral self-interest over principle, turning his response into an attack on Jeremy Hunt, who had already defended Darroch’s right to stay in his job. And it was at this moment that Darroch decided he had to resign, seeing a future leader who had already decided that he would hang him out to dry.
In the hours that followed, Johnson was quick to say that he was full of regret. Darroch was suddenly a “superb diplomat” whom he had “worked with for many years.” Where were those words when the man’s position and the U.K.’s institutions were at stake? Quelle surprise: They were nowhere to be found.
Johnson seems to have forgotten that the popular kids are almost never loyal — they use you when it is convenient and dispose of you when they see fit. If you’re busy cleaning sneakers, you won’t be around for long. But if you’re the one doing the homework, you’ve got a better chance of making it into the inner circle. It takes one look at the revolving doors of Trump’s cabinet to realize how difficult it is to make yourself an integral cog in his machine. But as so many of Johnson’s supporters are keen to point out, the Anglo-American relationship goes beyond the man in the White House. It is possible to treat the office of the presidency with respect without falling over yourself to cover its mistakes. Emmanuel Macron, for one, seems to have recognized this fact.
The United Kingdom’s voters decided to leave the European Union because of a series of inordinate demands by bureaucrats in Brussels. Giving in to an excessive American demand does not seem a suitable way to set the tone for a more fruitful relationship. Johnson’s team may have been cozying up to the White House for months, but there comes a time when national sovereignty should take precedence. It took precedence when Trump suggested that Britain’s National Health Service should form part of a future trade deal between the U.K. and America: British leaders grew irate and insisted that the NHS would never be part of any deal. There is no reason, then, why British sovereignty should not have taken precedence yesterday. Sooner or later, Johnson will either learn how to take responsibility or be squashed. Until then, it seems as if Darroch is the latest person to take the fall for Johnson’s opportunism.