Kim Darroch is former British ambassador to the US and author of ‘Collateral Damage: Britain, America And Europe In The Age Of Trump’
It was only 24 hours after the storming of the Capitol that Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, finally broke with Donald Trump. I witnessed first hand Mr Johnson’s fascination with the US president when he was foreign secretary — and how this continued when he became UK prime minister. As well as a reminder of the importance of principles in foreign policy, I fear it will cost Britain in terms of our relations with the Biden administration.
I realised the haphazard nature of Mr Trump’s administration four years ago. It was an evening in January 2017. I was at Dulles Airport, and the plane of then prime minister Theresa May had just taken off. She was the first foreign leader to see the new US president, only a week after his inauguration. It had been a strange meeting, but a genuine coup. As her plane’s taillights disappeared, I judged the UK to be as well placed as we could hope at the launch of this Administration of Unknowns.
A few hours later, we rethought this comforting assessment. Mr Trump signed an executive order barring passport holders from several majority Muslim countries from entering the US. Dubbed “the Muslim ban,” it caused chaos at airports around the world, with thousands of passengers caught mid-journey. Heathrow, as a major hub, was particularly disrupted. London pressed us to get the order rescinded but also wondered if we hadn’t been warned about this while Mrs May had been at the White House. We had learnt something fundamental about Mr Trump’s wilful and go-it-alone nature.
We re-learnt that lesson regularly. In November 2017, for example, I woke to news that the US president had retweeted some Islamophobic video clips from Britain First, a far-right extremist group. Mrs May responded, in the mildest rebuke, that he had been wrong to do this. Mr Trump replied angrily she should spend her time focusing on “the destructive Radical Islamist terrorism taking place within the United Kingdom”. Then, the following year, we put huge effort into arranging a “special” UK visit, including a gala dinner at Churchill’s birthplace, Blenheim Palace. Mr Trump rewarded us by giving an interview to the Sun newspaper in which he said Mrs May had ignored his advice, wrecked Brexit and destroyed the prospects of a UK-US trade deal.
Urged on by London, I would remonstrate with my White House contacts about these gratuitous attacks; about their failure to warn us; and, more generally, about the absence of advance consultation on their big policy decisions. I always got the same response: “You think any of us knew this was coming?” It painted a picture of a man so self-obsessed as to be incapable of processing the impact of his decisions on others, and so undisciplined that he would broadcast them to the first person who listened. Sometimes it was a call to Fox News, sometimes just putting his head around the door of the White House media room.
Through much of this time, Mr Johnson was foreign secretary and a frequent Washington visitor. On policy, he was poles apart from Mr Trump: an advocate of action on climate change, a liberal on immigration, a supporter of the Iran nuclear deal. Yet he was also intrigued, I believe, by Mr Trump’s rise to power, by the devotion he inspired among supporters, and by his never-give-an-inch approach to the media. Mr Johnson also thought he could manage Mr Trump, build a much stronger relationship than Mrs May, and make domestic capital out of his support for Brexit and a UK-US trade deal.
These were reasonable objectives. It’s important that the British prime minister be close to the US president. But Mr Johnson never knowingly understates, and this led him to statements he didn’t need to make: asserting that Mr Trump had “many, many, good qualities”, was “making America great again”, and even suggesting he was as good a candidate as Barack Obama for a Nobel Peace Prize.
None of this looks great now, in the wake of the Capitol’s sacking. Unlike Mrs May, the Johnson government also studiously avoided direct criticism of Mr Trump. It remained silent when he told Democrat congresswomen of colour to “go back” to where they came from, and declined to comment on Mr Trump’s handling of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Did this sidelining of our principles deliver for the UK? My guess is it wouldn’t have ended well even if Mr Trump had won the election. We might have got a UK-US trade deal, but at the cost of a massive increase in low-cost US agricultural exports into the UK.
With Joe Biden, it has started better than some anticipated, with Mr Johnson getting an early slot for his congratulatory call to the president-elect. But judging by what I’m hearing from Democrat friends, there will be a price to pay, somewhere down the track, for our obsequiousness to Mr Biden’s predecessor. They see German chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of Mr Trump as the gold standard, and reckon we fell way short. “What were you thinking?”, they say.
The lesson here? It is right and sensible to be judicious, to measure carefully the words that you use, and to consider the consequences. But ultimately, when basic values are challenged, you have to call it as you see it.