Baroness Ashton profile: Dearth of women allows dark horse to win

Cathy Ashton has a lucky habit of being in the right place at the right time. The 53-year-old Labour peer rose quietly up the Government's ranks to join the Cabinet as Leader of the House of Lords even though she had a low profile in her own party.

For years in Labour circles she was best known as the wife of Peter Kellner, the journalist-turned-pollster who founded the YouGov online opinion polling company. She won plaudits for her work as an Education minister in developing Labour's successful SureStart scheme for the under-fives, which she formally launched with Tony Blair.

She was a surprise choice to replace Peter Mandelson as the EU's Trade Commissioner in October last year when he cut short his five-year spell in Brussels to join Gordon Brown's Cabinet.

In Brussels, she has quietly won her spurs in the difficult trade brief. She expressed a desire to stay on as Britain's European Commissioner when her term of office ends shortly but that was by no means a certainty. Mr Brown considered other names – including Geoff Hoon, the former cabinet minister, and his close ally Baroness (Shriti) Vadera.

Now Lady Ashton has won a surprise promotion to one of the most senior posts in Brussels. She will be a vice-president of the Commission and help to correct its male-dominated image as she travels the world as the High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy.

Although the EU President's job sought by Tony Blair received much more media attention, some commentators believe her post carries more clout. She will head the EU's new External Action Service, a beefed-up foreign ministry created by the Lisbon Treaty. It will comprise 5,000 diplomatic staff posted to around 130 EU embassies around the world.

Mr Brown's spokesman said Lady Ashton "had made a very strong impression" since joining the Commission and would now be a "big player". While no one doubts her abilities, Brussels insiders believe her trump card may have been being a woman when there was strong pressure for more women to win Commission jobs.

Before entering politics, Lady Ashton was director of Business in the Community, working with firms to tackle inequality.