Widdecombe's diplomatic refusal
Ann 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?