Mrs Strachan, 52, is the third woman to be promoted under John Major to a top job in Whitehall, following the appointments of Stella Rimington to head the security service MI5, and Barbara Mills as Director of Public Prosecutions.
'It is quite a step. I am in a department which is regarded as being male-dominated and macho in its image but all my line managers have always encouraged me to go for things,' she said. Mrs Strachan had two children while in the civil service fast lane and found herself under pressure to return to work to 'earn brownie points'.
In spite of appearing for a photo-call on crutches after a slip that broke a bone in her foot, Mrs Strachan neatly sidestepped political issues yesterday. But hers is increasingly becoming a political hot seat.
When she takes over in April from Sir Brian Unwin, who becomes President of the European Investment Bank, the issues on her desk will include the single European market, the failed prosecution of the Matrix Churchill directors in the 'arms to Iraq' affair and the likely increase in value-added tax.
Sir Brian will attend the Chancellor's pre- Budget meeting at Chevening next weekend to brief Treasury ministers on VAT and any planned changes to excise duties. Mrs Strachan will be in charge when planning is under way for the first autumn Budget, being introduced this year.
Mrs Strachan entered Customs and Excise in 1961 as a graduate trainee from Manchester University. She knows Ms Rimington, but declined yesterday to say whether MI5 would be involved in operations against drug smuggling.
She said Customs and Excise officers did not want to be armed. They use armed police and the armed services when necessary. Mrs Strachan also warned that some of the new year revellers who imported drink for resale could be receiving a visit from her officers.
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