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Diplomats 'could now fear giving honest advice'

The leaking to the press of confidential reports from Britain’s ambassador to the United States giving frank views about US President Trump and his administration has made diplomats feel shocked and undermined, says the former British Ambassador to France.

Crossbench peer Lord Ricketts, who was ambassador from 2012 to 2016, said there is a risk diplomats could now fear giving honest advice to their governments, harming countries’ ability to make good decisions and policies.

Lord Ricketts told Connexion Sir Kim Darroch (pictured left) was simply “doing his job” by sending briefings home to the British government which according to a The Mail on Sunday report included an assessment of Mr Trump’s administration as dysfunctional, unpredictable, faction riven, diplomatically clumsy and inept.

Mr Trump reacted to the leaks by calling Sir Kim “wacky” and “a very stupid guy” and saying America would no longer deal with him.

Lord Ricketts said: “Somebody has decided it would be clever to do a very targeted political leaking of his material. They must have foreseen the reaction that would provoke from President Trump, and it’s made Kim Darroch’s position impossible and he’s had to resign.

 “It was a quite deliberate effort to undermine a first-class ambassador and it’s not only shocking but it’s worrying because it sends a signal to other ambassadors and civil servants that you can’t be sure now that the advice you give ministers is going to be kept confidential.

“So if you want frank advice and honest opinions from your diplomats and civil servants this is a way to really undermine that and that is the most toxic thing about this episode.

“If you want to make good policy, you have to have honest opinions. If everyone censors what they write down now for fear that it will leak then that will have an impact on the quality of decision-making and the well-being of the country, because the government must be well-informed.

“That’s why everyone is feeling shocked today and around the whole diplomatic network everyone will be feeling undermined by this.”

Lord Ricketts said it is unclear who leaked the documents.

“A reasonable number of people will have had access to the reports – civil servants, but also ministers and ministers’ special political advisors. There is now a very serious leak inquiry and I think the police are being brought in because it looks like a breach of the Official Secrets Act, so whoever did this ought to be very worried because they risk prosecution and going to jail.

“I think that to restore confidence in our system it would be really important to find the person and to prosecute them – that would send a very powerful signal.”

As for any responsibility on the part of the The Mail on Sunday and its journalist that could become a court issue as to whether there were legitimate defences such as reporting in the public interest and the right to keep sources confidential, Lord Ricketts said.

He said he believes the leak is more likely to have come from someone “on the political side” than a civil servant and it is possible that it was someone who wanted the ambassador’s job to go to a pro-Brexit politician rather than a career diplomat.

“These two things: pushing the leak enquiry to the point where someone can be prosecuted and replacing Kim Darroch with another professional diplomat would be powerful signals that our system can’t be pushed around."

Lord Ricketts said he would speculate that the failure of UK prime minister frontrunner Boris Johnson to support Sir Kim in a televised debate on Tuesday night must have been a factor in his decision to resign.

“I would assume that in his position you would be feeling that you need the clearest possible support from your political masters and he had that from Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt, but he did not have it from Boris Johnson in that debate.

“Boris missed the opportunity to stand behind him.”

In a letter accepting Sir Kim's resignation, the head of the diplomatic service expressed "deep appreciation" for his four decades of work in "a series of demanding roles", saying he had "loyally served the government of the day without fear or favour" and concluding: "You are the best of us".

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