Collateral Damage by Kim Darroch review – insulted by Trump, abandoned by Johnson | Autobiography and memoir

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Kim Darroch recounts the events which led to his resignation as UK ambassador in Washington in droll style. In July 2019 he was sitting in his muggy office, looking forward to a holiday, when his chief of staff appeared at the doorway. “We’ve got a problem. There’s been a leak,” she said.

The Mail on Sunday had got hold of confidential diplomatic cables written by Darroch for Theresa May’s government. They painted a frank and mostly unflattering picture of the Trump administration. At first Darroch thought he could tough out what he dubs, with ominous uppercase, “the Leak”. “I reckoned the blowback should be manageable,” he writes.

The paper, however, had got hold of a highly restricted memo written in mid-2017 by Darroch to Sir Mark Sedwill, the UK’s national security adviser. It described the Trump White House as “uniquely dysfunctional”. The president “radiated insecurity”. Something might emerge, he soothsayed, to bring about Trump’s downfall and disgrace.

Events thereafter followed a predictable pattern: the story was big news, an angry Trump declared Darroch a non-person, and Boris Johnson – in a TV debate between Tory leadership candidates – cravenly refused to back him. And so Darroch fell on his sword. “It was hard not to feel a certain injustice in my circumstances,” he writes, in a meek cry of “cruel world”.

Still, Darroch’s memoir is refreshingly free of self-pity. It is a highly readable and entertaining account of his diplomatic life and times. His ascent to the top mandarin job is atypical: no contact with Mum after his parents’ divorce, mediocre degree in zoology from Durham, an early spell in the Foreign Office’s slow stream, a posting in Tokyo.

But it is Darroch’s European connections that made him a target for Brexiters, one of whom – you imagine – knifed him in the back. (Scotland Yard is investigating. A year on, it hasn’t found the culprit.) He served as European adviser to Tony Blair and in 2007 became ambassador to the EU. This in turn led him to a post as national security adviser to David Cameron and from there to America.

He arrived in DC in January 2016, just as Trump was swatting aside his Republican party rivals for the nomination. Darroch swiftly recognised Trump as a formidable campaigner – and an underestimated one, viewed by his base as anti-politician and messiah. In a cable the following month he told London that Hillary Clinton was damaged goods and said it was conceivable Trump might win.

When he did get elected the British embassy was nonetheless stunned, and found itself scrambling to catch up. Darroch sought out Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Wilbur Ross and other members of Trump’s court. He buttonholed the man himself at a ball. At the inauguration, Darroch listened to a speech he calls “primordially angry in tone”. He fixed an early visit by May to the White House.

As well as cultivating the often weird denizens of Trump world, Darroch hosted visiting ministers. He is surprisingly generous about Johnson, his future nemesis, whom the Americans liked. He is less flattering about May. Her decision to invite Trump for a state visit was “unnecessary and premature”, her triggering of Article 50 a blunder. And he is withering about May’s special advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – a gormless duo, in his telling.

Darroch is not a Brexit fan. Nor is he a pro-Brussels super-state maniac, as his rightwing critics suggest. He is honest about the “factors” that made Brexit possible. These include large-scale immigration, profound regional inequality, identity politics and social media – all things that played a role in Trump’s rise. Plus, the EU was disastrously inflexible in the referendum run-up, he says, refusing to budge on freedom of movement.

As ambassador, Darroch had to sell Brexit to his American interlocutors, regardless of personal feeling. He told them it was going well, even though it wasn’t. He describes the 18 months up until May’s resignation as the hardest of his career. Meanwhile, the spectre of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation hung over the White House – a place of leaks, medieval court politics and what Darroch describes as Game of Thrones-style feuding.

Collateral Damage is rich in insight but short on revelation. Darroch isn’t able to explain why Trump is so fawning towards Vladimir Putin – a “genuine mystery”, as he puts it. His tentative explanation is a bit “meh”: Trump likes strongmen.

Inevitably Darroch settles a few scores. After his resignation he rang Johnson, who offered crocodile tears and said he had “absolutely no intention” of making the ambassador quit. Yeah, right. Darroch makes clear that Johnson’s failure to back him was a factor in his decision. He fantasises about visiting the leaker in prison. Overall he is more grateful than angry for his privileged view on dark times.

• Luke Harding’s Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West is published by Guardian Faber. Collateral Damage: Britain, America and Europe in the Age of Trump is published by William Collins (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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