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Widdecombe's diplomatic refusal

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William Crawley | 11:43 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

holysee.pngAnn Widdecombe has turned down the chance to represent the UK as Ambassador to the Holy See. She gave medical reasons for her decision: "I have just had an operation for a detached retina. I am very sorry about Rome. I would have gone otherwise." (Some commentators will sigh with relief that she has side-stepped the appointment.)

All eyes are now on Chris Patten, the former Governor of Hong Kong, who is said to be considering the job. His friends say he isn't sure he could combine the post with his day job as Chancellor of Oxford University. Chris Patten recently stepped down as Chancellor of Newscastle University, a position he held alongside his Oxford chancellorship, and he is currently overseeing arrangements at the UK end of Pope Benedict's state visit in September. I suspect if Chris Patten had wanted this job in the first place, he would have it already; which means it is unlikely that he will take it now. That said, if the Prime Minister is persuasive enough, in the way that only Prime Minister's can be, he might be tempted to split his time.

A deputy head of mission was recently appointed to assist the current ambassador, Francis Campbell, who heads a total staff of five officials. So this is a small operation administratively; but it punches well above its weight in terms of media coverage and general influence. Francis Campbell is the first Catholic to represent the UK to the Vatican since the Reformation, and he has proved to be such an impressive ambassador that the government may feel that there are benefits in finding a high-profile Catholic to follow him in the job. If not Chris Patten or Ann Widdecombe, then perhaps Paul Murphy, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland -- a devout Catholic and a papal knight -- will be approached. If they wish to stick with a Northern Irish theme, they might even consider Ruth Kelly, who also served in two Labour cabinets and is said to be a member of Opus Dei. Or even the Ampleforth-educated Michael Ancram, now 13th Marquess of Lothian, who once served in the Northern Ireland Office as a minister of state. They could also consider the former Tory Environment minister John Gummer, now Lord Deben, who, like Ann Widdecombe, converted to Catholicism after the Church of England permitted the ordination of women priests.

As with all high-profile candidates, there is the question of remuneration, and some former MPs, like Ann Widdecombe, are earning significantly more from their business and other activities than this position is likely to pay (roughly £100K, I'm told).

Which brings me to a possible candidate who doesn't appear to have been sounded out yet, who could easily afford the pay cut, and is not only a high-profile Catholic politician, but a recent convert. In fact, Francis Campbell once served as his private secretary in Downing Street, and his efforts were eventually rewarded with the most talked-about ambassadorship of the moment. How about His Excellency Tony Blair, Her Majesty's Ambassador to the Holy See? It has a certain ring to it, don't you think?


  • Comment number 1.

    Nice one, Will - I thought I saw where you were going with this at the top of the thread, but I still had a chuckle with the punchline.

  • Comment number 2.

    The dubious politics of having a religion occuping the same status as a nation state aside, send Richard Dawkins. Why does it have to be a Catholic? We don't send a Frenchperson to be ambassador to France. Surely the job of an ambassador is to represent our interests abroad? If the person sent is going to be fawning over a so-called 'representative of God' then they can hardly fight our corner, can they?

  • Comment number 3.

    I think that Chris Patton would jump at the chance. I'm tempted to say more, but I'll lrave at that (enough said).

  • Comment number 4.

    Of course Ambassador Campbell isn't the first Catholic to represent the UK to the Holy See since the Reformation.

    He's the first Catholic ever to do so, since there was no UK before the Reformation.

    As for Natman, clearly it doesn't have to be a Catholic since it's never been a Catholic before now. The person has to have knowledge and a feel for the country to which they are accredited - it doesn't mean they turn native and neglect their own country's interests, but it's not a good idea to send someone to France if they hate the French. It's useful if they can speak French, know the people, the politicians, the system becasue part of the job is to explain the country to their own government - they have to understand it, the nuances. And we know from the secular press that very few "get" the Vatican. One has only to recall the recent fiasco with the planners in the FCO around the State Visit and their hilarious ideas. Or the gasping reactions every time the Pope reveals he's a Catholic. That said, my inclination would be to appoint a good non-Catholic this time to avoid creating the impression that the person ought to be a Catholic. For years it couldn't be a Catholic - don't want the reverse situation.

    Of course worst of all would be a dodgy liberal Catholic who would embarrass the UK, the Pope and themselves.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Naughty Jelly, can you give us a hint of what you tried to say?

  • Comment number 7.

    There is no way Cherie would allow Tony to take up this poorly paid office (by her standards). She can earn that sort of money at a coffee morning.

  • Comment number 8.

    Lol I was just commenting that it should be a rich conservative who should be appointed, someone who would know how to....

    (I then quoted the famous line King Henry used to describe Rome.) I assume it was Henry's words which the moderator objected to, not mine.

  • Comment number 9.

    This post seems like a great waste of taxpayers' money to me. Other
    ambassadors bust a gut to see that the UK gets all the advantages it can, but what does the country gain by having this ambassador? The Pope comes here and it costs us millions, our PM goes to the Vatican and it costs a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits!

  • Comment number 10.

    Richard Dawkings as Ambassador would be my first choice however I doubt he'd take it, so Fr. Dougal would have to do.

  • Comment number 11.

    Could someone please explain what a papal knight is? How does one become a papal knight, and does that mean a papal knight represents the papacy in a country or could such a person objectively represent another nation state? Secondly a similar question, could a member of opus dei objectively represent the best interests of another state or would they already have an agenda to fulfil on behalf of the papacy?

  • Comment number 12.

    A papal knight is much like any other State's honours. It doesn't turn you into an ambassador or a representative of the country, just means you've been honoured for something.

    Opus Dei members don't operate to a secret Vatican agenda - it's a society for Catholics who want to follow a particular path to holiness, but they're still Catholics. We do have religious freedom in this country and guaranteed by UN Covenants, European Conventions etc, and that applies to being a member of Opus Dei.

  • Comment number 13.


    Never thought I'd find myself apologising to you but I just dont know what is going on with my posts. Moderator, you are killing this site.

  • Comment number 14.

    I really think this so called church should get it's house in order before anyone from the British Government should meet with this man.

    With the behaviour of it's so called priest's, lets not foreget the abuse cover up's and the abuse of our little kids.

    It makes me sick.


  • Comment number 15.

    Jelly, you must be on some black list - or have they forgotten you? You have post awaiting moderation all over the place.

    I think Will is the moderator and he's on the mitch.

  • Comment number 16.

    They should ask Ian Paisley to be the Ambassador, seeing he has GREAT EXPERIENCE in compromises as time has clearly shown.

  • Comment number 17.

    Whoever is making the appointment should bear in mind The Race Relations Act 1976 which protects individuals from being discriminated against in employment on the grounds of religious beliefs and the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 which forbids discrimination in employment due to religion or belief.
    So, it could be a British muslim - and why not?

  • Comment number 18.

    And of course the other State, in this case the Holy See, has to accept the person.

  • Comment number 19.

    And they have accepted people like Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson, Marcel Maciel, Cardinal Bernard Law etc..

    So get those application forms filled in, folks. It could be you.

  • Comment number 20.

    Mine's in. Diplomacy is my middle name.

  • Comment number 21.


    Just keep it quiet that you believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ. That wont go down at all well in Rome.

  • Comment number 22.

    Jelly - just let it go.

  • Comment number 23.


    If you are going to continue to make comments about "dodgy liberals" and pour scorn on the millions of very decent Catholics who are presently being hung out to dry by Benny, then you should expect that they might respond. Cappa Magnas and birettas might turn you all on, but there really is no basis in scripture for all that nonsense.

  • Comment number 24.

    Jelly, you really shouldn't worry so much about externals like cappa or birettas - it's what inside that counts.

    When did I pour scorn, and who exactly are these millions of Catholics hung out to dry? If you mean Catholics who have to put up with dodgy liberal bishops and pastors and so called Catholic teachers, I quite agree. What would Jesus do? Spew them forth for being neither hot nor cold.

  • Comment number 25.

  • Comment number 26.

    How are those people being "hung out to dry by Benny"? They don't chose to go to a papal Mass - how is that the Pope imposing on them?

    From the Herald:

    “Pilgrims are being asked to be in the park by 3pm at the latest for the Mass, which is due to start at 5.15pm and end at 7.30pm, when it will be almost dark. But during all this time the Pilgrims are expected to stand without any cover from the elements or seating facilities.
    “Most people will agree there is more chance of it being a wet windy night in September rather than a balmy autumn evening.
    “Booking such a venue is being looked on as being an irresponsible decision made by people dreaming of having a repeat of Bellahouston in June 1982.”

  • Comment number 27.

    Post 25... RJB, I really think the pope is worse than a word of faith tv preacher, always looking for money.

  • Comment number 28.


    Ratzinger did say on more than one occasion that the Church had to grow smaller in order to "purify" itself. He was and is quite happy to do everything in his power to bring that situation about.

    He was always going to get big crowds in Malta and Fatima. This is going to be the first real test of what ordinary catholics think of him.

    Less than 50 000 bothering to turn up to see him in Glasgow is a disaster.

    It would appear that John XXIII's reformation is in the hearts of many and they are not going to support Benny. He will be talking to an empty field and he has no one to blame but himself. It is the Church he has created.


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