Boris Johnson, the front-runner in the race to replace Theresa May as prime minister, last night refused to support Darroch when asked about the issue in a televised debate with his challenger for the premiership, Jeremy Hunt. That prompted the ambassador’s resignation today. Darroch was probably doomed from the moment Trump first tweeted; an ambassador is useless without access to his or her host country’s government. But it is still remarkable that Johnson, a former foreign secretary, did not offer even token resistance to the U.S. president’s outburst.
By contrast, Hunt, the current foreign secretary and no one’s idea of a hotheaded blabbermouth, called Trump’s comments “disrespectful and wrong to our prime minister and my country.” Standing opposite Johnson, he promised to keep Darroch in his post. That earned him a round of applause. (Johnson’s comments, that the leaker should be “eviscerated,” were not as enthusiastically received.)
The row over Darroch comes at a crucial moment for Britain, which is due to leave the EU on October 31. For Johnson’s premiership to be deemed a success, he must not only take Britain out of the bloc, but also secure a trade deal with the U.S. soon afterward.
To do so requires massaging Trump’s ego, and this is where the chasm between the leading pro-Brexit politicians and the voting public becomes clear.
The 2016 Leave campaign painted the EU as a foreign power intent on dominating Britain. (Johnson himself once compared the EU’s aims to those of Hitler, while Hunt has since compared the bloc to the Soviets.) Like many Brexiteers, Johnson sees the U.S. more positively: as a buccaneering beacon of free markets compared with rules-obsessed Europe. But it might be hard to convince Leave voters to see it the same way. Britons have long bristled at the notion that their country is the junior partner in the “special relationship,” so why should a group that has been primed to see international alliances as humiliating now unquestioningly accept Britain’s subservient role?
Jingoism is also a potent force among Remainers when translated as standing up to American bullying. Their cultural touchstone is a scene from 2003’s Love Actually, where Hugh Grant’s prime minister stands up to the U.S. president, who has groped his love interest. “I fear that this has become a bad relationship,” he says. “We may be a small country, but we’re a great one too … Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot, David Beckham’s left foot.”
To complicate things further, Trump is also personally unpopular in Britain. Only 21 percent of Britons have a positive opinion of the U.S. president, according to YouGov, while 67 percent have a negative one. (By comparison, 72 percent have a positive opinion of his predecessor, Barack Obama.)