Perfect pick for new FCO chief

Sir Simon McDonald

The London Diplomatic Corps has welcomed the appointment of Sir Simon McDonald as Permanent Under-Secretary (PUS) at the FCO.

Sir Simon takes up his post as head of the British Diplomatic Service after a successful tour of duty in Berlin which ended in a flourish with the State Visit of The Queen last year.

In Germany he was known for his wicked wit and his predilection for Pimms (he caused a stir as a guest on a German chat show when he turned up with a bottle of Pimms, seizing the chance to promote Britain’s summer drink).

But it’s no longer ‘Pimms o’clock’ for McDonald whose substantial in-tray includes the EU renegotiation, Russia/Ukraine, countering extremism, boosting trade and investment and keeping British citizens safe overseas.

Considered by insiders as an “all-rounder”, the 54-year-old has the right credentials for the job. During his Berlin post McDonald helped conduct shuttle diplomacy between Germany and the UK in an attempt to bring Angela Merkel to Britain’s way of thinking on EU reform.

The Middle East will also be at the top of the in-tray. McDonald, an Arabic speaker, understands the complexities of the region having earned his stripes, first as deputy head of mission in Riyadh (1998-2001), and then as Ambassador to Israel (2003-06).

He also served as principal private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, in the run-up to the Iraq war and later became Director for Iraq at the Foreign Office from 2006-2007.

On the all-important trans-Atlantic relationship McDonald gained useful insights with a stint in Washington (1995-1998).

From 2007 to 2010, he was chief foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and head of foreign and defence policy in the cabinet office.

The new PUS will have to convince allies that Britain is back on the world stage after a period of introspection. Prime Minister Cameron has already put his money where his mouth is, maintaining NATO’s spending target of 2% of GDP and overseas aid at 0.7% of GDP.

But that means the FCO will undoubtedly bear the brunt of Chancellor George Osborne’s swingeing cuts of up to 40% of its budget, leaving the PUS as little as £650m to run the FCO’s prized network of embassies in 168 countries. If that is to remain unscathed, cuts will have to come from somewhere else.

First to be axed were expense accounts of mid-level British envoys. So next time diplomats meet with a Foreign Office colleague, be warned it may be over coffee instead of lunch…