London CNN  — 

Boris Johnson, the favorite to succeed Theresa May as British Prime Minister, has refused to rule out firing the UK ambassador to Washington who provoked the ire of US President Donald Trump.

In a televised debate on Tuesday, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is standing against Johnson for the leadership of the Conservative party, reiterated his support for Kim Darroch, who was revealed in leaked cables to have criticized Trump as “inept” and “incompetent,” among other things. “I will keep [Darroch] until he’s due to retire,” he said.

Johnson, a former Foreign Secretary, refused to go out on a limb about whether he would decide to keep Darroch on. “I won’t be so presumptuous as to assume that I’m going to be in a position to take that,” he said.

“It is vital that our civil service is not politicized by people leaking what they say,” Johnson also said. “Whoever leaked that deserves to be eviscerated.”

Johnson is currently seen as the frontrunner in the race, after May was effectively toppled by her own lawmakers for failing to deliver on Brexit. He is expected to seek to forge a much closer relationship to Trump than May, who made strenuous efforts to court the President and developed a respectful relationship but never really bonded with him politically.

“Very wacky”

Earlier in the day, in a series of tweets, Trump had branded Kim Darroch as a “wacky” and “very stupid guy” after the British envoy criticized Trump in diplomatic cables that were leaked to the Daily Mail over the weekend.

Trump also took aim at Theresa May, describing the Prime Minister’s handling of Brexit as “a disaster!”

Hunt quickly responded by lashing out, describing Trump’s public criticism of the UK ambassador to the US as “disrespectful and wrong.” He also said that he would keep Darroch in post if he became Britain’s leader, and suggesting that Trump’s comments were hypocritical.

“Friends speak frankly so I will: these comments are disrespectful and wrong to our Prime Minister and my country. Your diplomats give their private opinions to [Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] and so do ours!” Hunt tweeted Tuesday.

“You said the UK/US alliance was the greatest in history and I agree … but allies need to treat each other with respect as [Theresa May] has always done with you. Ambassadors are appointed by the UK government and if I become PM our Ambassador stays.”

Hunt’s defense of Darroch came amid growing speculation around whether the ambassador can remain in his position if the White House freezes him out. Darroch decided not to attend a meeting with Ivanka Trump on Tuesday following the President’s criticism of him, a source told CNN.

‘Inept’ and ‘incompetent’

The deepening diplomatic crisis began over the weekend, when the Daily Mail published a series of cables sent from Darroch back to London. In the messages, Darroch called Trump “inept,” “insecure,” and “incompetent.” He said the President’s career could “end in disgrace” and even said of alleged collusion with Russia that “the worst cannot be ruled out.”

A UK government source told CNN the memos described in the Mail, which span the period between 2017 to present day, were genuine.

British officials spent the weekend trying to do damage control after the messages leaked, as their White House counterparts downplayed Darroch’s comments.

On Monday, Trump tweeted that his administration would “no longer deal with” Darroch, and said that he did not know the envoy, despite the fact the two men have met multiple times, including on Trump’s recent state visit to Britain.

In a sign that he is now out in the cold, the ambassador, who had contacts throughout the administration, was disinvited from a dinner with Trump, the Emir of Qatar and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday night.

Darroch was originally scheduled to attend a meeting Tuesday between Ivanka Trump and UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, but decided not to go following Trump’s tweets attacking him, a source familiar with Darroch’s plans told CNN.

“It was the ambassador’s decision not to attend. He did not want to put Ivanka Trump in a difficult position,” said the source, who asked not to be named due to the delicate diplomatic situation between the US and the UK.