As investigations focus in on the likely leaker of the Darroch memos, the wider ramifications are now under scrutiny. It is now being suggested that the leaking was politically motivated by those seeking to establish in Washington a British ambassador more clearly sympathetic to both Trump’s and Brexiters’ policies. Coming in the midst of a leadership contest thought likely to install a pro-Trump Hard Brexiter, the implications are considerable. At the same time senior civil servants are pointing to the departure of Darroch as more evidence of political interference over the traditional impartiality of the civil service. Off stage, there are yet more rumblings of a potential constitutional conflict over the threat of a No Deal Brexit and the sovereignty of Parliament. Yet again we are reminded of the disruptive effects of the Brexit crisis and its impact on the British polity.
We still do not know who has leaked the Darroch memos, and their reasons for the leak, but there are clues in the wind. For one the leaker’s publishing journalist, Isabel Oakeshott, is partner to the Chairman of the Brexit Party Richard Tice, which is led by Nigel Farage. Tice is now saying the job should go to a “pro-Brexit businessman”. Farage is known as being a friend of Trump and has argued in favour of having a more pro-Trump Ambassador in Washington. It is also known both Farage and Trump have strong pro-Trump leanings and that Trump supports Brexit and is keen on a post-Brexit “Free Trade” treaty to favour US interests such as lower restaints on the quality of US imports and access for US firms to the NHS. Senior former civil servants have speculated that the leak was politically motivated. Lord Ricketst, the chief civil servant at the Foreign Office, has said, “Sir Kim Darroch has been taken out by an act of partisan vandalism, presumably in the hope of replacing him with a political appointee more to Brexiters’ taste“.
The impact on the Civil Service
Senior former civil servants have also been pointing out that the Darroch removal is part and parcel of a trend that has been going on for some time. There has, they believe, been a pattern of repeated attacks on the impartiality and integrity of the civil service, culminating recently in the allegation that they are biased in favour of Remain and are obstructing the work of Brexiter ministers.
It should be said that this kind of allegation is as old as the hills. Radical governments have often blamed their lack of success on the “mandarins” in Whitehall. One only has to look at old videos of “Yes, Minister” to see how pervasive is this belief. Yet, it is considered that recently such attacks have become much more severe. Ivan Rogers and Olly Robbins, both involved in negotiating with the EU, have had their careers impacted by this criticism. Now it is the Ambassador to the US.
The issues at stake are not only the professionalism and integrity of senior civil servants but also their impartiality and permanence. Civil servants serve each government with equal enthusiasm. This is now in question. One should point out that in the US such people are generally replaced when a different party is in the White House, that such people are partisan appointments. It is in effect a feature of the British constitution.
Like not for a very long time, the key features of the British Constitution are in the firing line. Currently there is a threat to impose Brexit without Parliamentary approval by a prorogation of Parliament. This is being widely regarded as unconstitutional. A new Prime Minister is about to take over who has not faced a general election and who proposes an extreme form of Brexit which was not presented in the 2016 referendum or the 2017 general election. It is hard to argue that he would have a mandate, and yet that is precisely what the Brexiters claim, that they have a mandate as a result of winning the 2016 referendum under a system of government that prioritises the sovereignty of Parliament, the elective body. In the midst of this crisis, machinations are apparently in progress to manipulate key officials into cooperation with this regime. The very legitimacy of the current regime is in question.