12 July 2019

British foreign secretary and Tory leadership hopeful, Jeremy Hunt, yesterday told Foreign Office staff that ‘the UK government alone will determine appointments based on our national interest alone.’ This was a key line in a pep talk he clearly thought required by the demoralizing circumstances in which Sir Kim Darroch felt obliged to announce his resignation as British Ambassador at Washington in early July 2019. But it puts a gloss on the true position that reveals that, in making this statement, Hunt had more in mind the votes of the 160,000 Tory voters in the current leadership contest than the effect on his more savvy diplomats. For diplomatic law is unambiguous on the sensible point that new ambassadors can never be appointed without the prior agreement of their intended hosts: ‘The sending State must make certain that the agrément of the receiving State has been given for the person it proposes to accredit as head of the mission to that State’ (Art. 4.1, Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961). In order to avoid the embarrassment of a public rebuff, in practice such agreement is customarily sought quietly before any individual is publicly named. It is true that, since it would rarely be in the ‘national interest’ of the sending state to try to send abroad an unwanted ambassador, strictly speaking Hunt’s statement is correct. But his statement deliberately gave the impression to the nationalist-minded members of the Tory Party that Britain can send out any ambassador it likes. This is definitely not the case.

Since Britain will have a new prime minister in a little over a week, it would in principle make sense for this person to have the decisive say over the appointment to such an important post as Washington. But the case for this disintegrates when it is remembered (a) that this is likely to be Boris Johnson, who was the worst foreign secretary I can recall, and (b) that he is unlikely to be in office for very long. Theresa May is known to be concerned about her legacy. Getting Trump’s agreement to the appointment of a first class professional diplomat to the Washington embassy before Johnson gets into No. 10 would be at least one important achievement by which she would be remembered.