UK officials are embarrassed by the publication of unflattering assessments made by Kim Darroch, the country’s ambassador in Washington – but more alarmed that sensitive confidential information was leaked, possibly for political ends.
The British government is hunting for the source of a leak of diplomatic cables that branded President Donald Trump’s administration “dysfunctional” and “inept”.
The leaked cables were intended for senior UK ministers and civil servants, and officials said they believe the mole will be found among British politicians or officials, rather than overseas.
“I’ve seen nothing to suggest hostile state actors were involved,” said Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman, James Slack.
The inquiry is being led by civil servants in the Cabinet Office, and Slack said police would only be called in “if evidence of criminality is found”.
It’s possible the leaker could be charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act, which bars public servants from making “damaging” disclosures of classified material. Breaching the act carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison, though prosecutions are rare.
Trump said on Monday he “will no longer deal” with the British ambassador to the United States.
“I do not know the ambassador, but he is not liked or well thought of within the US. We will no longer deal with him,” Trump said in a Twitter post that also criticized May.
“What a mess she and her representatives have created. I told her how it should be done, but she decided to go another way,” he said. “The good news for the wonderful United Kingdom is that they will soon have a new prime minister.”
UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said there would be “very serious consequences” if the culprit of the leak was caught, adding the ability to communicate frankly was “fundamental” to diplomacy.
He said ambassadors were hired to provide “honest, unvarnished assessments” of politics in the countries where they serve, which didn’t necessarily reflect the views of the British government.
“I’m sure the British government expect this sort of candour in diplomatic cables; the British public pays for exactly this sort of candour to inform political judgements, but it is supposed to be secret,” said Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London.
“Of course, they will hope to try to put a lid on this; it comes at an extremely sensitive time in British politics. Theresa May is about to leave office and the people vying to be her replacement, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, will be making Brexit a priority – after which the ‘special relationship’ with the United States will take on even more significance.”
In the leaked cables – published in the Mail on Sunday newspaper – Darroch called the Trump administration’s policy towards Iran “incoherent”, said Trump might be indebted to “dodgy Russians”, and raised doubts about whether the White House “will ever look competent”.
“We don’t really believe this administration is going to become substantially more normal; less dysfunctional; less unpredictable; less faction-riven; less diplomatically clumsy and inept,” one missive said.
The cables cover a period from 2017 to recent weeks. Darroch has served as Britain’s envoy to Washington since 2016.
After the cables were published, Trump said the ambassador “has not served the UK well, I can tell you that”.
“We are not big fans of that man,” said the US president.
The leak is an embarrassment for May, who has sometimes clashed with Trump, and could make things difficult for Darroch, who is accused by some Brexit-backing UK politicians of a lack of enthusiasm for Britain’s departure from the European Union.
The journalist who reported the leak, Isabel Oakeshott, is a strong supporter of Brexit and ally of Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, Britain’s leading Trump champion.
Trump said in 2016 that Farage would “do a great job” as ambassador to Washington.
Farage brushed off that idea on Monday saying, “I’m not a diplomat and I think that’s quite an understatement.”
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who was meeting US officials in Washington on Monday, called the leak “malicious”.
“I think it is unconscionable that any professional person in either politics of the civil service can behave in this way,” he said.
Fox, who is due to discuss Britain’s withdrawal from the EU with Trump’s daughter Ivanka, told BBC radio he would apologise for the fact that standards of “either our civil service or elements of our political class” had “lapsed in a most extraordinary and unacceptable way”.