LONDON (AP) — Boris Johnson, the man likely to become U.K. prime minister within weeks, on Thursday denied playing any role in the departure of Britain’s ambassador to Washington, who quit after coming under attack from President Donald Trump.
British politicians from both government and opposition parties have accused Johnson of spinelessness for failing to defend envoy Kim Darroch, and said the removal of a British ambassador because of pressure from a foreign leader was a severe blow to British diplomacy and power.
“This is a direct challenge to a sovereign nation,” said Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative lawmaker who heads Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. He added that Britain “shouldn’t be bullied.”
Johnson told The Sun newspaper it was “bizarre” people were blaming him for the departure of Darroch, who resigned following a furor over leaked diplomatic cables which labeled Trump’s White House dysfunctional, clumsy and inept.
Trump responded by branding Darroch a “pompous fool” and cut off the administration’s contact with him.
Darroch announced his resignation Wednesday, saying it had become “impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.”
Politicians including Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s rival for the prime minister’s job, criticized Trump’s tirades and defended Darroch.
But Johnson merely stressed his good relations with the White House and the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Darroch resigned hours after Johnson made those comments.
“I can’t believe they’re trying to blame me for this,” Johnson told The Sun. “I’m a great supporter of Kim’s. I worked very well with him for years.”
Conservative lawmaker Nicholas Soames, however, said Johnson had “hung Kim Darroch out to dry … and I was ashamed to see it.”
Opposition Labour Party legislator Liz McInnes called Johnson’s behavior “the most craven and despicable act of cowardice I have seen from any candidate for public office, let alone someone running to be prime minister.”
Labour called for Prime Minister Theresa May to appoint Darroch’s successor before she leaves office later this month, to prevent Johnson from putting his own appointee in the post.
Johnson is the strong favorite to win a Conservative leadership contest and succeed May as party leader and prime minister. He is widely expected to defeat Hunt in a ballot of about 160,000 party members. The winner will be announced July 23.
May could try to replace Darroch in the two weeks she has left, but she is unlikely to have enough time.
British ambassadors are almost always professional diplomats rather than political appointees. Filling overseas posts involves a formal civil service process with advertisements, applications and interviews.
It’s unusual, but not unknown, for non-diplomats to become ambassadors, and some have suggested Johnson as prime minister might appoint someone seen as strongly pro-Brexit and friendly to Trump. The president has previously said Brexit champion Nigel Farage would be a good choice, though Farage this week ruled himself out.
May’s spokesman, James Slack, would not comment on the timetable, saying only that “in terms of this particular replacement, that will take place in due course.”
Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan said Darroch’s replacement would be appointed in the “proper way.”
“The next ambassador will be appointed in the usual way by the prime minister on the foreign secretary’s recommendation with the approval of Her Majesty The Queen,” he told lawmakers.
British officials are hunting for the culprits behind the leak of Darroch’s confidential memos, intended to be seen by a small group of senior politicians and officials. The cables published by the Mail on Sunday newspaper covered the period between 2017 and recent weeks.
Officials have said they think it’s 50-50 whether the mole is found.
Duncan said Thursday that the investigation had so far found no evidence that the security breach was a hack, rather than a leak.
“Our focus is on finding someone within the system who has released illicitly these communications,” he told lawmakers.