As so often, I think Peter Oborne is on the money when he deplores the importation into British politics of the American practice of handing prime diplomatic posts to superannuated politicians. And as with many bad things in the British body politic, it’s a practice resorted to by John Major and then enormously expanded by Mr Tony Blair; and it is symptomatic of the decline of the FCO and the Diplomatic Service.
I mention this in connection with the impending retirement of our local man Francis Campbell as ambassador to the Holy See. Francis is an impressive figure in many ways, and demonstrates that there’s still some strength in depth in the Diplomatic Service. He is of course the first Catholic to have held his post, after Mr Tony in one of his fits of lucidity swept away the FCO rule barring Papists from the job; yet he has a depth of theological knowledge that makes him ideal for the post, such a depth in fact that it’s hard to process that he’s an Irish Catholic. He has also, largely by his own initiative, rescued what used to be a diplomatic backwater and made it rather an important post.
So it’s rather depressing that the rumours around Francis’ replacement have centred around, well, superannuated politicians. First the rumour was that Cameron was going to give the job to Ann Widdecombe, a prospect that will have had many people falling off their chairs. Widders is an admirable woman in some ways, but someone with such a reputation for, let’s not put too fine a point on this, bluntness shading into outright rudeness is not an obvious candidate for diplomacy. Yes, she can work to a brief, but one wonders about the mental processes of anyone who thought she would be a good fit for the art of getting your way by discreet persuasion.
But now there’s a twist in the tale. From behind Uncle Rupert’s paywall, Ruth Gledhill informs us that Widders is not taking on the Vatican job as she’s due to go on Strictly Come Dancing instead. So who might be in the frame? Ruth tweets that the favourite at the moment is Chris Patten. Yes, that Chris Patten. The legendary Tory grandee, diplomatic troubleshooter, papal visit coordinator and trustee of That Magazine We Don’t Mention. This may just be some kite-flying, but it’s as plausible as anything else.
Pros and cons? Well, Lord Patten does have a well-earned reputation for competence and is known to be quite good at discreet persuasion. One may also whimsically hope that he will confirm the Holy Father’s opinion of the state of English Catholicism, and hasten the long-overdue housecleaning. On the debit side, should Chris get the job Ma Pepsi will be insufferably smug, and Bobbie Mickens might be able to dry his eyes for a little while. One may expect a veritable orgy of self-congratulation from those quarters.
Who really believes there’s no lash-up between the government and the Tabletistas? Only dumbos.