Simon Macdonald

In the political avalanche faced by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in July, Christ’s students, myself included, were squarely focused on one man. This man was Sir Simon McDonald, who sent Boris Johnson’s career fatally spiralling when he revealed a Downing Street cover-up of sexual misconduct allegations against MP Chris Pincher, and who had been due to take over as Master of Christ’s since November. Even though the summer holidays dispersed the Christ’s community, a palpable buzz was felt surrounding “the man who brought down Boris Johnson.”

I do not think I was the cause of Boris Johnson’s fall...But I see that I was the occasion

However, McDonald wants to get one thing straight. “I studied history at Cambridge as an undergraduate. And I learned to distinguish causes and occasions. I do not think I was the cause of Boris Johnson’s fall. I think Boris Johnson was the author of his own demise. But I see that I was the occasion.”

McDonald also said that it was being a retired civil servant that allowed him to expose the cover-up - “I tried hard before speaking out in public to get the system to do the right thing by private intervention, so I spoke in advance to senior figures in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Office.” But that’s as far as he would have been able to go had he still been a civil servant - “Part of the essence of being a civil servant is service in private.” If not for Lord McDonald now being a member of the legislature, Boris Johnson could still be our Prime Minister.

However, since the departure of Johnson, whom McDonald called the worst PM that he ever worked with, another Prime Minister has come and gone. Now Rishi Sunak is at the helm, whom McDonald calls “methodical”, “hardworking”, and “a man guided by facts.” His assessment is that “we could have two relatively quieter years” under Sunak’s tenure. Given the flurry of crises faced by Johnson and Liz Truss, perhaps this does not say much.

McDonald’s career was in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and at a Cambridge Union address in February he made the prediction that Russia would not invade Ukraine. 8 days later, the “insane”, as McDonald calls it, happened. “Seven months later, we can see it was insane from [Putin’s] and Russia’s point of view, because basically everything has gone wrong for Russia.”

There must not, in my view, be any invasion of Russia, any touching of Russian sovereignty

Despite Putin’s actions, McDonald still has faith in Russia’s ability to negotiate. “Certainly everything that Russia has tried to take since the 24th February needs to be returned to Ukraine.” Yet he continues: “But that’s all that needs to happen. There must not, in my view, be any invasion of Russia, any touching of Russian sovereignty [...] And then there needs to be a negotiation, because I can imagine circumstances where the political future of parts of the Donbass, of Crimea, is not with Ukraine.” McDonald reckons that a UN supervised process might be the only method of negotiation that works. I ask, with a degree of incredulity, whether he thinks Putin will ever be amenable to negotiation. McDonald replies, “Even a figure like Putin has to occasionally accept defeat, because when you’ve lost, you’ve lost.”

As a career diplomat, McDonald exalts diplomacy not just as the solution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, but as the future of British power. He believes that Britain has to “readjust [...] our hard power is simply not as capable as it used to be, but we are still powerful, and much of that power is soft power.” Diplomacy, McDonald believes, will also be a huge asset in the struggle against climate change. Even if young people aren’t developing new technologies to fight global warming, “planetary issues are going to be a huge part of the classic foreign policymaker’s agenda in the next half-century.”


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McDonald is especially passionate about climate issues, having travelled around the world with the British Diplomatic Service and finding that absolutely nowhere on the planet was untouched by pollution. He describes his expedition to Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter, one of the world’s largest sandy deserts. Even after two days’ trek into the heart of an area where no humans live, he was “amazed by the plastic waste - the empty carrier bags coming over the dunes in the middle of the most remote desert in the world.” When flying low over vast Siberian pine forests, McDonald witnessed a similarly shocking sight, “thousands of miles” of trees that were “dead or dying” due to pollution. In 2021, when McDonald visited the Greenland ice sheet, he saw firsthand that “everywhere was melting...seeing it for myself made a very deep impression.”

Having witnessed firsthand the impacts of pollution in more places than the vast majority of Britons ever can, I half-expected Lord McDonald to think that the planet was doomed. However, I was mistaken. “There’s no part of me that thinks that, because I’m here in Cambridge, the people now studying are the people that will have the ideas, that will invent the kit that will save us.” This green ethos is at the heart of what McDonald wishes to do at Christ’s. “Ground-source heat, air-source heat, photovoltaic energy are going to be the future. It’s about improving insulation. It’s about changing how we travel. It’s about changing how we eat. A lot of agendas have to come together. And work is already underway. But I hope in my seven years in Christ’s, we can push this a lot further.”