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UK Ambassador to USA: Leaked Emails

Volume 663: debated on Monday 8 July 2019

(Urgent Question): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I know that many in the House, and no doubt—[Interruption.] Oh, sorry.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the leaks from the UK ambassador’s office in Washington.

Her Majesty’s Government utterly deplore the serious breach of classified information; it is totally unacceptable. As the Prime Minister has already said, we retain full confidence in the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, for whom we have enormous respect as a distinguished and long-serving diplomat.

The Prime Minister and the British public expect our ambassadors to provide Ministers with an honest and unvarnished assessment of the politics in their country. We pay our ambassadors to be candid, just as the US ambassador here will send back his candid reading of Westminster politics and personalities. But it does not mean that this is the same as what the British Government think. A cross-Government investigation led by the Cabinet Office has been launched, which I can reassure the whole House will be thorough and wide-ranging.

I apologise for the slightly false start. I am extremely concerned, as I know many others in the House are, by the leaking of communications from the UK ambassador’s office in Washington that has been widely reported over the weekend. I fear that we are developing a culture of leaks, and that will be extremely detrimental to the UK because leaks damage our reputation, have an impact on our ability to function effectively and undermine our relationships with our allies.

Although I understand that the Foreign Office has opened an inquiry into this leak, I have today written to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to ask that she also opens a criminal investigation into the leak. I have asked her for reassurance that all necessary resources will be made available to ensure that the source of the leak is determined, as a priority. I have also today asked the Foreign Secretary for details of the leak inquiry: who commissioned it; whom it will report to; whether it will be published; whether serving Ministers, officials and their predecessors will be compelled to participate, and what happens if they do not.

This leak is not just a problem for the Foreign Office; it affects the entire Government. I have heard already today reports of senior serving military officers who are increasingly concerned that the reports that they write may also not be kept secret. I have written to the Prime Minister to share this view and to ask her to ensure that all relevant parts of the Government are asked to help to investigate the leak and to urge her to respond robustly to prevent similar incidents from occurring. I want confirmation from the Minister that this issue is being treated with the seriousness it requires, at the heart of government. He has already spoken powerfully to condemn it. I would like him to treat the issue with the seriousness with which he has already begun and to order a criminal inquiry. Does he agree that whichever parts of the Government can help to look into the source of this leak—including the security services—should be asked to assist with the matter urgently and that any actions short of these steps will send out a dangerous message that the UK is reckless with information and cavalier with the trust placed in it?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and supportive statements over the weekend. I share his deep concerns about this unacceptable leak for exactly the reasons that he has clearly set out, and I reassure him that it is being treated with the full seriousness that it deserves. There will be a cross-Government investigation, led by the Cabinet Office. Obviously, it is not for me to prejudge the inquiry, but I can assure him, and the House, that it will be comprehensive and that, as with all leak inquiries, it will endeavour to report its findings clearly—and if evidence of criminality is found, then yes, the police could be involved. The most important focus is to establish who is responsible for this despicable leak.

Again, I am grateful that my hon. Friend’s experience in the Army and in international affairs has been able to lend a voice of authority to the condemnation that we should all wish to express.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I also thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for securing it. We have already heard powerful statements from him, from the Minister of State, and indeed from the Minister’s current boss—the Foreign Secretary—and the Prime Minister denouncing the leak and the damage that it will do to the confidence of our civil servants working abroad to honestly feed back their insights and opinions on the situations that they are best placed to assess.

Let us remember why this is so important. Forty years ago, the Iranian revolution reached its climax. The Shah’s army withdrew to barracks rather than fight their fellow citizens in the streets of Tehran and effectively ceded control of the country to Ayatollah Khomeini. It was an event that sent shockwaves through the middle east and triggered deep soul searching at the Foreign Office: how had it failed to see this coming in a country that was regarded as such a close ally and such a vital trading partner? The concern was great enough that the Foreign Secretary, David Owen, commissioned an internal inquiry conducted by the late Sir Nicholas Browne into what had gone wrong.

The conclusions from Sir Nicholas became a cautionary tale for the entire diplomatic corps about the need for UK representatives abroad to keep making sound objective judgments about the countries in which they are based, oblivious to political bias or strategic interests. Kim Darroch was working in the Foreign Office when that report was published. He learned the lessons from it, and now he has been betrayed. He has been hung out to dry even though his only crime was to tell the truth. He told the truth about Donald Trump, and that was because it was his job.

I do not want to get into all the conspiracy theories as to where the leaks came from or whatever personal ambitions or rivalries have driven them. Instead, I have a simple question for the Minister: as well as the leak inquiry that the Government are now undertaking, will he also commit to providing an update of Nicholas Browne’s recommendations to reassure all our diplomats abroad that when they feed back their reports they do not need to fear politically motivated leaks and they can—as, for the good of our country, they must—keep telling the truth?

First, may I thank the right hon. Lady for her very measured response to this? I am very grateful, particularly as I know that she personally has some quite strong views about America and the current regime. She is absolutely right that the importance of candid advice is paramount. If that does not exist, our really wonderful diplomatic network is seriously diminished. Indeed, I remember—I am just old enough—the Iranian revolution and the conclusion reached that the then ambassador, Sir Anthony Parsons, had painted too rosy a picture, in his telegrams, of the Shah’s regime. Therefore, frank reporting is absolutely crucial.

I can give the right hon. Lady the assurance she seeks that we, as Ministers in the Foreign Office, can always reassure ambassadors that, if they speak truth unto power, they will never be personally criticised for doing so. Indeed, sometimes the more awkward it is, the more we respect and praise them for their honesty and their perceptions.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that all our ambassadors are expected to report frankly and privately, especially on the substance of incoming Administrations in the country to which they are accredited? Will he confirm that Sir Kim Darroch, who was only doing his job, should not be pilloried for that? Should not my right hon. Friend also send a message from this House that Sir Kim has not only the confidence of Her Majesty’s Government but the confidence of Parliament?

I think that the ambassador will be very heartened by the message that my right hon. Friend is asking the whole House to give him, and I hope that all in it share the view expressed by my right hon. Friend. Indeed, we do have full confidence in Sir Kim. He is expected to report, and it is unfair that little bits have been taken out of context, in some cases to sensationalise the contents of his diptels—diplomatic telegrams. Over the two and a half years of this Administration, his telegrams have been extremely balanced, and if they were ever to be seen in their entirety, which they might be in 30 years’ time, the picture painted of what he has been saying would be very different.

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for raising this issue and for the action that he has rightly taken. I also thank the Minister for making a strong statement; that is the correct thing to do. That said, there are Members in his own party for whom everyone else is collateral in this Brexit mess and the damaging infighting it has caused, which has nothing to do with the best interests of the citizens they are supposed to serve.

Officials, and especially ambassadors, must be able to provide frank advice to Ministers about foreign leaders. The Minister recognises the value of officials being open to Ministers without fear or favour, even if others in his party do not. Given the seriousness of this leak, what action does he feel should be taken? If an elected official is involved, does he feel that that person is worthy of ministerial office?

Furthermore, I have seen some reports that people think it is a good idea to have Mr Farage as the UK ambassador in Washington. He is leading his second party that has been overwhelmingly rejected both by the people of North East Fife and by Scotland as a whole, and it will be rejected again, should he stand. Does the Minister agree that Mr Farage, with his extreme views, is utterly unfit for the post of UK ambassador to the USA and should have no place in any Administration of which the Minister is a part?

This is not about Brexit. This is about an utterly disgraceful leak, and whoever is responsible needs to be traced and punished. We would make no distinction between a Member of Parliament, a Minister, an official or anybody else in trying to trace and punish who has leaked these documents. In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Nigel Farage, fortunately, for the good of our diplomatic reputation, he has ruled himself out of wanting to be ambassador to Washington.

Although Mr Farage has ruled himself out, the question still arises of what the effect would be if Sir Kim felt that his position had become untenable and, instead of retiring in a few months’ time as planned, he had to go earlier. One effect would surely be that an outgoing Prime Minister had a say in the replacement, rather than the new Prime Minister. Would it not be sensible for Sir Kim to be encouraged to stay in post, so that there is no temptation for an outgoing Prime Minister to appoint to a plum job one of her inner circle?

I have no wish whatsoever to comment on the process by which any future ambassador to Washington will be chosen. All I will say is what I said earlier: we have full confidence in Sir Kim Darroch, and he retains the entire confidence of the Government and all of us who serve as Ministers in the Foreign Office.

It is clear that whoever was responsible for this was not thinking of the national interest. The whole House supports Sir Kim Darroch in doing his job, which is to report home without fear or favour. Does the Minister think that the expression of support for the ambassador’s position from the Prime Minister and others has been slightly undermined by the Foreign Secretary saying that he did not agree with the ambassador’s assessment? It would be helpful to the House if the Minister could explain why that is the case, because it seems to many of us that Sir Kim was only reporting what lots of other people can see for themselves.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was making a distinction between what is analytical reporting and what is said to be the view of the Government. In that sense, he was absolutely right to try to draw that distinction and he, I and everybody else have full confidence in Sir Kim Darroch.

These toxic and unjustified attacks on the President of the United States and his Administration are completely—[Interruption.]

They are regarded by many people as completely unjustified. As Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, I was more than well aware of Sir Kim’s own prejudices in relation to the EU. Surely it is not his so-called frankness that should be the issue, but his lack of judgment that disqualifies him from his post.

I regret to have to say that I consider my hon. Friend’s intervention deeply unworthy. Sir Kim Darroch is a diplomat of calibre and of integrity. Nothing in his reporting from the embassy could ever be construed as an attack on the President of the United States. All of it was reporting of the highest quality, which we expect of our diplomats and diplomatic network.

May I commend the Minister and indeed the Secretary of State for International Trade for defending our ambassador? Will the Minister take this opportunity to guarantee that our need—our desperate need—for a trade deal with the US will not stop our ambassador from speaking frankly, and will he also take this opportunity to dismiss the idea of the conspiracy theorists that this is some deep-state, anti-Brexit plot by the establishment?

Rather, I would say that everything we are witnessing is a sign of a very deep and serious relationship between our two countries, in which so much between us is assumed, on so many layers in so many areas, on a basis of trust that nothing—incidents such as this could be listed among such things—will ever get between us in that way. So the relationship is solid and no conspiracies can be put forward to suggest that this is either a Brexit plot or a trade deal plot: this is straightforwardly a despicable leak and we will endeavour to find out who did it.

Inevitably, however, there will be aspects of the ambassador’s role that will now be much more difficult to carry out, won’t they?

But as with so many diplomats, Sir Kim Darroch has the style and confidence that will make sure that he can.

It is inconceivable that a leak intended to damage our serving ambassador in Washington came from a fellow civil servant, so will the Minister confirm that the telephone and email records of serving and former Ministers and special advisers in the Foreign Office will be part of the investigation? Given the close relationship between the journalist who received this leak and leading pro-Brexit politicians, what does he think was the motivation behind it?

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have been rather puzzled over the weekend about what the motivation could be, because any kind of scenario I put into my head does not seem to add up. On his question, that will of course be for the inquiry. I would merely point out that one of the leaked documents was from two years ago and three were from about eight to 10 days ago.

Does my right hon. Friend share my confidence that this episode is most unlikely to have any lasting effect on our relationship either with this Administration or with the United States in general? May I commend the Government for taking the right tack, which is to condemn the leaker and to back our diplomat?

I certainly condemn the leaker, and I certainly back our ambassador and his entire team in what is an excellent embassy. I very much hope that this causes no upset. I imagine that some of the reports from the US embassy in London will be saying some quite interesting things about the state of our politics. That will not necessarily represent the view of the ambassador or the US Administration; it will be people reporting from post back to the capital about what they think is going on. That is what they are there to do.

The Foreign Office simply cannot function or do its job properly on behalf of all of us unless a confidentiality guarantee is written into the whole fundamental system. In the 1930s, the British ambassador in Berlin regularly reported back in a way that sought to please the Prime Minister here, as well as the Führer in Germany. Is it not absolutely vital that all our ambassadors and high commissioners around the world are certain that their job is to tell the truth, not only about the country in which they are resident, but to Ministers here, whatever those Ministers may think?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who, of course, has experience as a Foreign Minister, so he knows this process very well. It is not the purpose of an ambassador to ingratiate themselves with anybody; they are there to tell the truth, and it benefits everybody when they do, but leaks of this sort make that more difficult. I very much hope that our ambassador to Washington will not in any way feel browbeaten by the media onslaught. He has the full support of every single person in this House of Commons.

When the Minister for the Americas first saw these leaked diptels, was there anything in them that surprised him?

No, because obviously I had seen them before. I have had the benefit over two and a half years of seeing all reporting of this nature from Washington. I say again to the House that it is very balanced. Picking out a few little bits that can be construed as critical of what were, in fact, analyses at a critical time in Washington politics is a distortion of the broad picture of support and understanding, of a very high quality, that has come from Washington over the past two and a half years.

As the Minister has said, Sir Kim Darroch was doing his job, and the kinds of things that have been reported have been reflected in many other accounts of the White House, including in published books. What is more interesting is why this was leaked and what the consequences might be. We have already seen this morning a full, broad, nationalist, right-wing attack on the civil service as a result. What guarantee can we have that the new regime taking over government at the end of the month will not indulge in that kind of nationalist, right-wing attack on institutions such as the civil service and the judiciary, which are essential for a representative parliamentary democracy?

The new regime, as the right hon. Gentleman calls it, will have to speak for itself when it has taken its place. There is something else that this House should condemn very strongly: the comments of Nigel Farage, who immediately jumped on the political bandwagon, as he saw it, and called for the ambassador to be sacked. For many people, what little respect they might have had for him will have evaporated even further when they heard that.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply to the extraordinary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). Those of us who have had briefings from Sir Kim, both in his current role and when he was at UKRep, will know how balanced and professional they are, so I am very grateful to the Minister for the position he has taken. I also hope that a message will go out right across the diplomatic service, and to Ministers and potential future Ministers, that all the agencies resourced by our Government will be used in inquiries and that those found to have done this will really regret having done so.

My right hon. Friend serves on the Intelligence and Security Committee, and so is familiar with the organisations that I think he is suggesting should be deployed. The Cabinet Office will use all its means to delve into this matter and try to find the culprit. I wholly agree with him that if we succeed in tracing who did this, they should regret that moment for the rest of their life.

Sir Kim Darroch has always given honest and frank reports, no matter which party he has represented. Whenever delegations go to the US, it is vital that the briefings they receive are honest and impartial, and they always have been. A positive thing happened this morning during my journey to the station: so many people I spoke to who had tuned into Radio 4 turned off the minute Nigel Farage was brought on to comment, because they felt his opinion on Sir Kim was so appalling.

I would rather like to echo everything the hon. Lady has said. I also heard him on the radio, and after throwing something at it, I switched it off. The Washington embassy is a remarkable institution. The number of people who go through it every year is enormous, yet the staff and the diplomatic team cope marvellously—with style, dignity and a warm welcome—and make everybody feel they have been paid proper attention to. I commend them for everything they do; long may it continue.

Does the Minister agree that if the person leaking has signed a declaration on the Official Secrets Act, then the Act would appear to have been broken, and a breach of the law will have taken place? The police will have to be called, because the matter appears to be criminal.

I thank the Minister for his responses to these questions. He is always very balanced. Does he not agree that the leak of this information is simply not good enough and that steps need to be taken to prevent such leaks? Will consideration be given to amending disciplinary proceedings for those in public service to underline the severity of the consequences for their personal career and the fact that they may have to answer a case in law?

We have the Official Secrets Act so that people can answer in law. Ministers are bound by the ministerial code. Whether there should be any increase in the severity of punishments that might be applied is probably a longer-term question. In the meantime, it is important that the inquiry finds out who did it and absolutely nails them.

Does my right hon. Friend see any link at all between the timing of this appalling leak, and the fact that just over a week ago it was announced in the media that Sir Mark Sedwill coveted the position of ambassador in Washington?

Forgive me, but I find these conspiracy theories rather tiresome. They are a diversion from the focus we should have, which is to appreciate the severity of what has happened; find the culprit; and unite, across the House, in making sure that we all agree on the matter and support our ambassador to Washington.

The Minister and I share something in common: we both throw things at the radio when Nigel Farage comes on. Why the BBC continues to persist with him as a commentator is completely beyond my comprehension. That leads me to my question. Can the Minister assure the House that this leak was not politically motivated and did not aim to ensure that senior members of his Government could place a political ambassador in our most important embassy in the world?

I have to give the same answer I gave some moments ago, which is that that smacks a bit of a conspiracy theory. The motivation behind the leak is difficult to analyse and assess. What matters is the fact that there was a leak. That is what we have to focus on and address.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the enduring links between the United States Administration and ours, but can I pick him up on one small point? He said in answer to a question that if it was found—as it clearly should be—that a criminal offence had taken place with this leak, there could be a prosecution. Surely there should be a prosecution.

Any decision to prosecute, as my hon. Friend appreciates, is a matter for those authorities who assess the evidence and then make the decision, so it would be inappropriate for me to suggest that something is certain, although I accept that he was asking about what would happen, conditionally. However, I hope he will appreciate that our view is that the investigation should be deep, thorough and severe, and that we should follow the law if we find the culprit.

We need to call this out for what it is: the individual or individuals responsible for this leak have betrayed this country, and those attempting to justify it and to attack our ambassador and our civil servants are guilty of deeply un-British and deeply unpatriotic behaviour. I have been on the receiving end of diptels, and I agree with the Minister about how balanced they are and how crucial they are to good decision making in government—not least after the Chilcot report and what that taught us about decision making. Will the Minister therefore tell us what steps are being taken to increase the security around the circulation and handling of diplomatic telegrams?

On the preamble to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I say: well said, in every conceivable respect. I agree with what he said. A review of classifications and security decisions of this sort in our communications, and their distribution, will, I am sure, be looked at, but I hope that he appreciates that our first priority must be to investigate the leak.

This is an extremely serious leak of not just one highly sensitive diplomatic cable, but a number of them over a relatively long period. I endorse the request from the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), and several other hon. Members that the police be called in and that a criminal investigation take place. However, until that happens, will the Minister confirm that the Cabinet Office inquiry, which he has announced today, will be led by the Cabinet Secretary personally, who, of course, has had experience of heading up sensitive inquiries in recent months?

The Cabinet Office inquiry will be cross-Whitehall, and will report in the normal way up the line of seniority.

There has been some speculation about how long Kim Darroch will remain in his post. Given his excellent record, and the fact that he is clearly talking truth, regardless of the possible implications for the relationships with the country concerned, would not the best answer to President Trump and some in this House be for the Minister to recommend that Sir Kim Darroch’s term be extended beyond the end of this year, so that he can continue to comment on the uniquely dysfunctional and inept Trump presidency?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his extremely unhelpful ingenuity. Any decision about when Sir Kim finishes in Washington will not, I hope, in any way be influenced by the events over the weekend.

Whoever leaked these signals will have signed the Official Secrets Act, which means that they should not divulge anything “confidential”, “secret”, “top secret” or above. This is the act of a traitor, and whoever has done it, we should deploy everything that we have against that person under the Official Secrets Act.

Yes; our Government, diplomacy, ministerial activity and the actions of civil servants all need to be underpinned by trust, and trust means that people have to be able to keep confidences, not leak inappropriately—or leak at all—and not divulge information that should not be leaked. This is a total and inexcusable breach of trust, and without that trust, Government cannot function. I hope that the investigation that has been started will be able to find out who did this.

The Minister’s tone today is spot-on, and right and proper. Given that the leaks took place over two and a half years, will he examine how many people have had access to all that material? Will he also confirm that the United Kingdom Government, not the American Government, choose the ambassador to the United States?

We of course appoint ambassadors as we see fit, in the interests of the country and the bilateral relationships they serve. As I understand it, the leaked emails are two years apart—one cluster is very recent and one is from two years ago—so it is not quite right to say they have been leaked consistently throughout that period, but we do not know if there are any others in the wrong hands that might subsequently be leaked. I say for the umpteenth time that I hope the investigation is successful and that we get to the bottom of this breach of trust.

Typically, how many named individuals would be on the circulation list for a diplomatic telegram from Washington—10, 50, 100, 1,000?

Once the telegram has done all the rounds to all posts and various layers, I would guess the number is probably well in excess of 100. It will be quite a large number, but depending on the classification of a document, it will either be restricted or more widely distributed, so the numbers vary a lot.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) pointed out, the journalist behind these stories has close links to the Leave.EU campaign, and specifically to Arron Banks, who is being investigated by the National Crime Agency in relation to overseas donations in elections in this country. Given that backdrop, does the Minister agree that it is essential that we also look at the possible role of hostile powers in this leak?

We do not at this stage see any evidence of third-party intervention of that sort. The first premise is that it is a leak from within, but we do not rule out any options, and that is what the investigation is there to study closely.

This leak is both reprehensible and deeply unpatriotic. Once the investigation is concluded, will its outcomes be reported to the House, along with the lessons to be learned?

I imagine that the results, whatever the outcomes, would definitely be made public—in what form, I am not in a position to say, but I am sure that if someone is found, the world will soon find out about it.

Cui bono? Given the untrustworthiness of the American Administration, and their filleting of their own Departments, such as the State Department, in a way that is ideologically driven, because they do not find them trustworthy, what assurance can the Minister give the House—I hope he is blunt, because I think I know the answer—that the future occupant of 10 Downing Street will not carry out the exact same type of ideological purge in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the end of the month?

Appointments in any subsequent Administration will be a matter for that Administration. We will of course have to wait to see who is in it.

In common with other right hon. and hon. Members, I have had meetings with Sir Kim Darroch in the past, and they have been both a pleasure and an honour. We have a convention in this place that we do not name officials, which is why today’s statement is all the more frustrating. Does the Minister share my concern that this is part of a trend? A clique within British politics is undermining the civil service, as was referenced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). It has attacked Olly Robbins and called for him to be sacked; it has attacked Sir Mark Sedwill; and now it is deliberately seeking to undermine our ambassador to Washington. Is it not about time we put a stop to these people who are undermining how British politics works?

This is an unprecedented leak, but is the Minister at least relieved that the incompetency and failure of the man who is likely to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is in the public domain, and he does not have to worry about the ambassadors of other nations doing a similar job?

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, permitted to make whatever judgments he wishes to make.

It would appear that that was the last question. Let me say to the House, first, that I am very grateful for the cross-party support that has been displayed. It is a credit to the House that this exchange has been so dignified and purposeful. Secondly, let me reiterate once again our full support for Sir Kim Darroch as our ambassador. Thirdly, I hope that through your channels, Mr Speaker, we can also convey to the President of the United States our respect for him personally, for his office, and for the enduring relationship—which I hope will endure for ever—between the United Kingdom and the United States.

I am very grateful to the Minister of State for the way in which he has handled this important set of exchanges, and I thank all colleagues for participating in the last 41 minutes of expressions of opinion and questioning of the Minister.

For my own part, let me say that this is an extremely serious matter. I last saw Sir Kim Darroch when I was in Washington in May and had an extremely good and informative meeting with him. He is not merely a highly capable but, frankly, an outstanding public servant. I simply want to express the hope, in the light of the rather venomous and misplaced personal attacks that have been lobbed in his direction today, that he will not in any way be cowed; rather, I hope and trust that he will be fortified by the expressions of opinion about that public service that we have heard this afternoon.