It is two years since Lord Simon McDonald stepped down as head of the UK's Diplomatic Service but the job somehow remains part of his daily life.
From the Foreign Office-style lanyard that hangs around his neck to the radio interview he had conducted on the day we met about the track record as foreign secretary of current Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, Lord McDonald remains imbued with his lifelong vocation as a public servant.
It is fitting then that his new memoirs are titled Leadership: Lessons from a Life in Diplomacy. The book is published at a teachable moment for the UK. It can be read as a manual for what must change and how that can come about.
When it is suggested to Lord McDonald that he moved beyond an expected footnote in the UK history books this summer with an intervention that was the likely trigger for the resignation of Boris Johnson, he gives a little shrug. “I'm astonished because all I felt I was doing was to stick up for the facts,” he tells The National in his new surroundings of Christ's College at Cambridge University, where he is master.
As he writes in the book, Lord McDonald's letter to set the record straight on a scandal, the latest of many, surrounding Mr Johnson on July 5 was followed on July 7 by the announcement the prime minister would resign. In a nutshell, Mr Johnson had been briefed by Lord McDonald when foreign secretary that one of his junior ministers had accepted a reprimand for mistreating a foreign office official. The same minister, Christopher Pincher, fell foul of the expected standards again this summer and Mr Johnson rejected accusations he had known of the earlier transgression.
Carefully, Lord McDonald sets out the reasons he felt both compelled and obliged to take stand. As with his book, his recollection of the events demonstrates an instinct to support and assist his former colleagues.
“Basically, nobody serving is allowed to speak up for the civil servants,” he says. “But somebody's got to do it — there's stuff that's going on that is wrong.
“I know what's wrong and I can set the record. I can put out the facts.”
The July Downing Street briefings defending Pincher denied there had been formal complaints during his Foreign Office posting, much less the investigation and the sanctions he had accepted. “I was able to state yes there were formal complaints, yes they were investigated, yes they were upheld and Mr Pincher apologised,” he recalled.
“The most persistent line from the No 10 press office was that the prime minister had known nothing. And then they tried 'well he'd known in the most general terms and these are minor unfortunate, informal allegations, that had been resolved'. And I felt that was a mischaracterisation.”
After 10 months of rolling controversy for Mr Johnson, including the notorious “partygate” saga over celebrations held while the country was in coronavirus lockdown, the Pincher affair was enough to deliver the coup de grace for the prime minister. As Lord McDonald notes from a newspaper editorial at the time, Mr Johnson succeeded in killing off a third prime ministerial career in succession, this time his own.
I put it to Lord McDonald that as a new author he is in the enviable position of being in the news. That morning he had told Times Radio that Mr Raab's behaviour, while he was foreign secretary, had been unacceptable, leaving staff “scared” to enter his office. Mr Raab followed Mr Johnson as foreign secretary when the latter resigned in 2018.
For Lord McDonald, the lessons of his near four decades-long career provide a valuable guide to why the system needs to fully catch up with “new norms in society”.
The complaints system that he uses to point out why the politicians must correct their course is, he believes, “too brutal” and in effect broken. Evidence must cross a certain threshold. The investigation is then forensic and often stacked in favour of the defendant. And it most likely that the complainant will be junior to the person accused.
“At the end of this investigation, if the minister or senior official is exonerated, well then the more junior, failed complainant is in an even more vulnerable position,” he says.
“I think that behaviour which was previously accepted or at least tolerated, is no longer so and people want to be treated with respect at work. In a way it's a shock it has taken Westminster and Whitehall so long to see that as a reasonable expectation.”
Lord McDonald mentions two examples from after he took over in 2015 as permanent secretary at the Foreign Office of how hard it was to keep the system on track. An anonymous letter made claims about a colleague identified as X while a formal complaint was lodged against another colleague, Y. Both were senior, both formidably ambitious.
Lord McDonald had an informal chat with X, who fobbed off the allegations by objecting to the complainer's anonymity. Meanwhile, the complaint about Y was taken out of his hands by the head of the civil service, who then proceeded to declare the process unsatisfactory. Lord McDonald was clearly uncomfortable about the outcome in both cases, even as he notes he remains a friend of X.
“Neither learnt anything positive from their episode; both would be stronger officers if they had,” he writes. “At the least, I was complicit in their failure to learn.”
Early in his career Lord McDonald was posted twice to the UK embassy in Saudi Arabia. It was a formative experience, not least because of the influence and charisma of senior colleagues in the embassy. One in particular, Sir Stephen Egerton, was flamboyant and charismatic. It was Sir Stephen who coined the abiding advice to incoming ministers: “You can ignore the Middle East if you want but you must be surprised if the Middle East doesn't ignore you.”
I ask if the atmosphere in today's Foreign Office, particularly as standards change, could accommodate his old mentors.
“I was in Saudi Arabia twice. The first time there was just a string of leaders in the embassy and only later on did I realise they were the best that the Foreign Office had to offer,” he said.
“The best of these characters can flex and learn. I think big characters can still operate. But there's a danger here. If you're a big and effective character are standards in other areas of life allowed to be lower?
“Most of the effective leaders I have seen and worked for did not need those flaws in order to deliver.”
Leadership: Lessons From a Life in Diplomacy (Haus Publishing, £20), by Simon McDonald, is available now.