Irresistible rise of man with plan

"I have a cunning plan," he will say; and he usually does. Sir John Kerr (right), who is to be Permanent Under-Secretary of State (Puss) at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is an accomplished diplomat, and a man with a finely tuned wit. During a long spell as Britain's ambassador to the European Union, he was given to quoting chunks of Blackadder while dominating his mission with his sheer intellectual power. Sir John, 55, will succeed Sir John Coles, who retires in November, as head of the Diplomatic Service and top civil servant at the Foreign Office.

The new Sir John has followed a career trajectory that mirrors the development of British foreign policy. He began in the Sixties, as part of the small team which then masterminded politics in the Arabian Peninsula, before moving on to Rawalpindi, Moscow and Nato. He was Private Secretary to the then Puss for four years, and was seconded to the Treasury from 1979- 1984, working closely with the Thatcher government as economics became pre-eminent.

EU matters became Sir John's metier; he is regarded as a central figure in the FCO's "European mafia". He was UK Permanent Representative in Brussels from 1990 to 1995, seeing through a series of mind-bendingly difficult negotiations while chain-smoking Benson & Hedges Special Filter. His command of detail and killer instinct left him well-equipped for the Brussels snake-pit. He would sometimes put down an impertinent query by saying: "That is not at all what I meant when I wrote that part of the Maastricht treaty."

The announcement of Sir John's elevation yesterday carried with it one particularly intriguing element. The decision to appoint him was made after Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, had been told.