In a response agreed across government, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, firmly said there was no vacancy for the ambassadorship, and Downing Street lavishly praised Sir Kim Darroch, the current British ambassador who was by coincidence in London briefing the UK National Security Council on the implications of Trump’s election.
In a sign of the government’s unease at Farage’s elevated status with the Trump team, ministers held back from directly challenging Trump’s interference, or the president-elect’s judgment of the Ukip leader.
Foreign Office ministers are concerned at the extent to which figures like Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, may be promoting Farage, partly to fuel populist forces in the UK and Europe.
Donald Trump had tweeted on Tuesday night:
Farage said he was very flattered by the president-elect’s tweet, adding it was “a bolt out of the blue”. Urging Downing Street to abandon protocol and take advantage of his connections, he tweeted:
Deepening the divide between No 10 and Trump, Farage added: “At every stage I am greeted by negative comments coming out of Downing Street.
“The dislike of me, Ukip, and the referendum result is more important to them than what could be good for our country. I have known several of the Trump team for years and I am in a good position, with the president-elect’s support, to help.”
Although governments sometimes discreetly consult on the acceptability of a specific proposed ambassador, it is unprecedented for a president to state his preference in public, and to choose someone such as Farage who is determined to break up the entire EU, and has dedicated his professional life to weakening Theresa May’s Conservative party.
The Foreign Office will find Trump’s behaviour at best irritating – since Johnson has expended political capital trying to ingratiate himself with the president-elect, including trying to persuade his European colleagues to put aside their doubts about Trump.
The Conservative chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, Crispin Blunt, described Trump’s behaviour as extraordinary, saying the episode showed “in transition Trump has not got professional advisers around him who realise how gratuitously insulting it is to try to select the UK ambassador to the United States”.
In the Commons, Johnson said hostility to Trump was premature and not in the British national interest, and insisted his administration could be judged only once in office.
“The UK’s relationship with the US is the single most important geopolitical fact of the last century,” he said, adding it was vital to be as positive as possible about the president-elect.
He told MPs that any premature verdicts about Trump “could be damaging to the interests of this country”.
He added: “It is important for us in this country to use our influence, which is very considerable, to help the United States to see its responsibilities, as I’m sure they will.”
The Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Simon McDonald also continued to claim Trump would moderate his views and prove more malleable to UK policy positions once in office.
He said: “One thing I have learned is that what is said in the campaign is different to what happens when the winner is in the White House. It is very important for us to judge the new president by his actions in office.”
He added the UK would be discussing Trump’s foreign policy positions, including on Nato, proliferation of nuclear weapons and trade before he finally took office, adding that Trump’s election means the UK was no longer at the back of the queue for a bilateral trade deal with the US.
One of Farage’s closest advisers, Raheem Kassam, said: “The government has a choice to make – they can have a professional career diplomat that keeps the UK as close as other countries to the Trump administration, or they can choose Nigel and have the best access that goes beyond the Thatcher-Reagan relationship.”
But former diplomats lined up to kill off the idea of Farage acting even as an official go-between for the UK government and Trump. Andrew Cahn, a former UK trade envoy, said it was vital that ambassadors were professionals loyal to the government “with no other cards to play, however well connected they are”.
Peter Westmacott, Darroch’s predecessor as British ambassador in Washington, said: “It’s a nice gesture to Nigel Farage but an unusual suggestion. Governments choose the people they want to represent the country abroad for good reason – their job is to look after the national interest. Kim Darroch is doing that very well.
“Ambassadors need to be acceptable to host governments, not chosen by them,” he added. “I don’t see No 10 tweeting who the president-elect should appoint as the next US representative to the Court of St James.”
Veterans of diplomacy and how it is practised in Washington said it put Darroch in a uniquely awkward position.
“This makes his life difficult because a new elected president of the United States has voiced a preference for another person,” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs during the Bush administration.
“I don’t remember anything remotely like this … it’s a complete break with essential diplomatic protocol and a preposterous notion that you would publicly suggest one of the major political foes of the government should be appointed. It is rude to the British prime minister and puts her in a difficult position.”
At Foreign Office questions, some Conservative MPs also refused to hold back from criticism. The former health minister Dan Poulter urged Johnson to accept there “should be no place for anyone who expresses inflammatory and what sometimes could be considered to be bordering on racist views in representing this country in discussions with the United States”.
Keith Simpson, the Tory MP for Broadland, praised Johnson while delivering an ill-disguised barb, saying he was relieved Johnson had ruled out Farage because “in this post-truth world, we might have assumed that he might have been sympathetic given they had campaigned together so remarkably on Brexit”.
Johnson found himself in difficulties when pressed by the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, to say if he agreed with Trump that climate change was “a hoax, invented by the Chinese”.
Thornberry urged the prime minister to show “some moral backbone” and tell Trump when she visited him next year that he must not undermine the climate change deal agreed in Paris.
Johnson responded that Trump was a dealmaker, and said the government would be taking a message to the White House about the importance of the Paris climate change deal.
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