Nevertheless, Darroch is generally shrewd and liberal-minded. He gives an excellent account of Trump schmoozing Republican donors and rallying his core supporters, observing that his shapeless speeches are addictive and sometimes electrifying because nobody knows what he is going to say next. Darroch’s assessment of Trump’s vindictive and dysfunctional administration is sound – its personnel have changed so often that Darroch’s attempts to put British ministers on terms with their American counterparts were largely frustrated. He sensibly advised Theresa May that to offer Trump a premature state visit would make Britain look desperate. His objections to Brexit were so cogent as to suggest that, in the toxic atmosphere it generated, some fanatical Eurosceptic was responsible for the leak of the dispatches that ended his career. Darroch doesn’t point the finger. Nor, unfortunately, does he say who in Obama’s White House told him after the referendum, ‘We think you guys are screwed.’
Darroch comes across as a personable and generous man. He has an objectivity and respect for those he writes about, including Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, and continually invites us to reassess our own prejudices. It turns out that he shares a passion for dinghy sailing with Sean Spicer, the former White House press spokesman, who was lampooned after his furious statement that Trump’s inauguration attracted “the largest audience ever.” The two stayed in touch after Spicer’s resignation. Although the crowd issue was never mentioned, Spicer did talk about being abused by passers-by while out with his young children in Washington.
As Dr Samuel Johnson once said, “A writer only starts a book. A reader finishes it.” The respect Darroch shows for those he writes about is to be found, too, in his respect for his readers, except perhaps for one – the leaker.
Collateral Damage is a sharply written book, full of dry and wry observations of a lifelong public servant who, having spent his career shunning the spotlight, suddenly finds himself at the heart of a media firestorm, incurring the wrath of a thin-skinned president and a thick-skinned soon-to-be prime minister who seemingly doesn’t want to expend political capital saving our man in Washington... this book is filled with great vignettes and classy analysis from the man who until just over a year ago sat at the top of the diplomatic tree. And there is nothing dusty or dry in his account of dealing with the twin forces of Boris and Donald, and how they’ve shaped politics – and his life.
This account of Darroch’s ambassadorship has no claim to importance, because it tells us nothing about Trump or his country that we did not know already. However, there is bleakly comic detail, for instance about the embassy’s difficulties in contacting the Trump camp after he won, and the problems thereafter of finding anything to say to each other.
Some predecessors were also star socialites, such as Sir Christopher Meyer and his wife, Catherine, who wowed Washington with their parties. Meyer later scandalised his confidants with a book called DC Confidential. The gregarious Darroch is admirably ungossipy. He writes wryly rather than gushingly about the social whirl; avoid gala dinners, is one heartfelt recommendation. Startlingly unreflective about his own buttoned-down personality (he was abandoned by his mother at the age of six), he delivers sharp insights about others; crisply critical about their decisions, while fair-minded and even kind about them as people. Readers will get the feeling that he prefers to pack a punch rather than make a splash. Now he has done both.
Collateral Damage is rich in insight but short on revelation. Darroch isn’t able to explain why Trump is so fawning towards Vladimir Putin – a “genuine mystery”, as he puts it. His tentative explanation is a bit “meh”: Trump likes strongmen.
Inevitably Darroch settles a few scores. After his resignation he rang Johnson, who offered crocodile tears and said he had “absolutely no intention” of making the ambassador quit. Yeah, right. Darroch makes clear that Johnson’s failure to back him was a factor in his decision. He fantasises about visiting the leaker in prison. Overall he is more grateful than angry for his privileged view on dark times.