From the City of London to Mexico City: Jeremy Hunt’s plan for CEO ambassadors

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will unveil plans to open some of the UK’s top diplomatic posts to non-civil servants on Wednesday.

It is part of a revamp of Britain’s diplomatic system which includes proposals for 1,000 more staff and a wider array of languages being taught, unveiled five months before Brexit.

Here we look at some of the issues:

– What is Jeremy Hunt proposing?

He wants to open one or two top posts, those of ambassadors who represent the UK in other countries, to be taken up by high-flying business figures like FTSE company chief executives.

– How does it work at the moment?

Currently ambassadors are generally drawn from the Civil Service. They have often – but not always – spent some time in the Diplomatic Service, which deals with foreign relations and can come from a variety of backgrounds.

Woody Johnson
Woody Johnson

– Do other countries do it like this as well?

Not always. The US system is heavily politicised, with the President able to nominate their own ambassadors, subject to approval by the Senate. It means that often high-rolling political donors receive plum jobs. Donald Trump made Woody Johnson, the billionaire owner of the New York Jets American football team, his ambassador in London last year.

– Will that happen here?

Mr Hunt told the BBC: “There will be absolutely no conflict of interest allowed and anyone applying for these jobs wil apply through normal Foreign Office processes so we can make sure that proper independence is protected.”

– Why does he want business people to come in then?

Mr Hunt will use a speech in London on Wednesday night to say “we must never close our eyes to the approaches and skills of other industries”, including business leaders with links to other countries.

– Can business leaders slot into these roles?

Priya Guha, a former consul general in San Francisco who left to work in the private sector, told the BBC that the skills of the diplomat, “like influencing, negotiating, leadership, management, operational excellence”, are highly valued in the private sector and “it’s really valid for the Foreign Office to look at how can we bring some of those diverse range of skills and experiences back” into the service as well.

Sir Christopher Meyer
Sir Christopher Meyer

– What are the other concerns?

Sir Christopher Meyer, a former UK ambassador to the US, said senior business leaders had previously sometimes baulked at the “modest” pay on offer compared with the City.

– Anything else?

Sir Christopher said the plan was “a good idea in principle” but pointed out that an ambassador is more than just a trade envoy – they have be able to work within political, cultural, media and other circles.

“If you say to a guy ‘We are sending you as ambassador to Ruritania because we have strong economic interests and strong commercial interests and we want you to bring your experience and acumen to this job’, he may then forget there is a bunch of other stuff you have to do as well,” he told Today.

“That may be his or her downfall when they take up their appointment.”

– What does the union say?

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union which represents senior civil servants, said diplomats are already trained in international trade, adding: “Diplomats are made, not born, and the UK’s interests are best served by a professional diplomatic service.”