Lord Ricketts: We must act on these malicious attacks on civil servants

Posted On: 
10th July 2019

Following Sir Kim Darroch’s resignation as ambassador to the USA, Lord Ricketts reflects on how this latest act of political sabotage provides further evidence of a growing pattern of ‘malicious’ attacks on senior civil servants

Boris Johnson and Kim Darroch in 2017

I write this as the news is coming in that Sir Kim Darroch has resigned as ambassador to the USA. Kim is an outstanding public servant and a good friend. It is a bad day for the civil service and the country that he has been brought down by a disgraceful act of political sabotage. I have laboured the point in the media that the scandal is not what he wrote. It is that someone with access to sensitive information collected his reports and leaked them at the moment of maximum political impact, with predictable results.

There is a pattern here. Several of our most senior civil servants have been subject to this sort of malicious attack. Two years ago, Sir Ivan Rogers stood down as our man to the EU after his honest advice to Ministers on Brexit was deliberately leaked against him. In recent months, the Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has been the subject of denigration for having warned the Cabinet about the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. The country is facing the biggest upheaval in its international position since 1945. It desperately needs an effective and confident civil service. To stop the rot, those who leak national security information should be brought to justice, and the new Prime Minister should make clear from the outset his confidence in the quality and loyalty of our civil service by sending another career diplomat to the Washington Embassy.


The two EU Committees I sit on have been hard at work looking at the implications of a no-deal Brexit. Their reports bring out the uncertainties, in areas as disparate as security, the supply of medicines and access to the Erasmus student mobility and Horizon research programmes. So I was surprised at the criticism of the recently retired Head of the Brexit Department, Philip Rycroft, for saying that it was a leap into the unknown. I’d say his fault was understatement!


President Putin grabbed a big headline in the FT just before the G20 summit with the claim that liberalism was dead. When I hastily mugged up what he’d said in preparation for a Today programme interview, I discovered his definition of liberalism was oddly narrow: immigration, open borders and multiculturalism. He conveniently overlooked the success of the liberal economic system and the strength our societies draw from diversity. It was a new experience to have John Humphreys agreeing with me when I suggested that Russia couldn’t decide whether to be a maverick or a serious country.


The UK-China Joint Declaration on Hong Kong in 1984 was the result of one of the last big set-piece diplomatic negotiations. I played a small part as Private Secretary to Sir Geoffrey Howe and was at the signing ceremony in Beijing with Mrs Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. The recent massive protests in the streets of Hong Kong over the proposed changes to the extradition law – and the heavy-handed Police response - sent me back to re-read the commitments China gave in this binding Treaty. They were as clear as I remembered them. In particular, China undertook that Hong Kong’s way of life with its rights and freedoms would continue for 50 years after the handover. The success of Hong Kong since 1997 is in many ways a tribute to that 1984 Treaty. The brave Hong Kong people have shown this month they are willing to stand up for their rights. They deserve our support.


In these gloomy times, the best therapy is art. So it was great to go with the APPG on Arts and Culture this week to see the British Library exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark. Don’t miss it!

Lord Ricketts is a Crossbench peer and former ambassador to France