A very undiplomatic incident

The top woman in the Foreign Office is leaving. She is very angry. Was she pushed or did she jump? Polly Toynbee reports

"She's in a frightful bate," said a voice redolent of the Foreign Office. Such self-mocking use of old-fashioned public school patois suits this belittling of the highest-flying woman in the diplomatic service: Dame Pauline Neville-Jones.

Well, she is in a bate and she has every reason to be, according to her friends. Indeed, the angry fumes can be seen rising from her Chelsea house, where she has been sulking in her tent since December, quite understandably. For her head has just crashed against the glass ceiling and the sound of the collision is reverberating around the vaulted corridors and marbled stairwells of the Foreign Office.

She is speaking to no one. The news of her imminent departure from the second-highest post in the Foreign Office emerged from hostile leaking at the very top. Her friends are gleeful that it has rebounded sharply upon the head of Sir John Coles, the Permanent Under-Secretary, who, they say, has done her down. He does not like the public accusation of sexism at the top of the Foreign Office, and the Prime Minister is not pleased.

Pending the usual delicate negotiations over a severance deal, Dame Pauline will shortly leave the Foreign Office to join NatWest's investment banking department, specialising in Europe. Douglas Hurd, her old political boss, is already there, as a director and deputy chairman of NatWest Markets.

But she will leave the Foreign Office still as a Grade 2 and not in the expected Grade 1 position. (This, according to the First Division Association, will make some pounds 200,000 difference to her pension over its expected lifetime, so it is not a matter of empty status.) Almost without exception, someone who has reached her post as political director, second only to the Permanent Under-Secretary, will be given a Grade 1 ambassadorial post - Paris, Bonn, Washington or Moscow. (One went to Rome, usually a Grade 2 post, but it was upgraded especially for him.) It is her failure to be given the Paris embassy, the plumb posting, that has led to her leaving prematurely and in anger.

Dame Pauline was effectively winkled out of her job as political director by Sir John despite having been promoted to it with the express enthusiasm of the Prime Minister. Indeed, John Major has stepped into this fray, provoking further resentment from the embarrassed Sir John. "The Prime Minister has been remarkably kind and supportive to her," says one insider. It explains why she was made a Dame in the New Year's Honours List.

But when it was plain she was about to walk out and seek greener pastures elsewhere, the top brass became afraid they would be blamed for treating her badly and the high-level leaking began. She was said to be "difficult", "acerbic", "a bit outspoken" and "not absolutely a top-drawer brain, jolly good but more of a 2.1". The snake whispers are everywhere. To give a flavour of how these things are done in the poisonous corridors of power, take this classic leakage to the Times last month: "Those who have known her for years say that the efficient, strong-willed manner in which she conducts her affairs was invaluable in dealing with the turbulent Bosnians. But it hasn't proved sufficiently emollient for the niceties of diplomatic life." So, she's suddenly a virago fit only for Bosnian battlefields, some kind of Foreign Office Annie Oakley.

The world of diplomacy grows ever greyer, with everything done these days by committee, but Dame Pauline was a character with a touch of old- style panache. She has a pithy turn of phrase, unlike her more mealy-mouthed colleagues. She was outstandingly good as head of Britain's delegation at Dayton, Ohio, where the accords creating a Bosnian peace treaty were forged. Her confidential telegrams were predicted to "make vintage reading in 30 years' time", reflecting the shifting tensions between the European factions under pressure from the impatient Americans. She has an open, if sometimes slightly brittle, air - but mixed with a warmth that makes her remembered.

Once ousted as political director, the Prime Minister's chief foreign adviser, she wanted the Paris embassy. "Quite understandable," says an ex-Foreign Office hand. "In these days when we all take a pretty dim view of the ambassadorial function, at least you want to do it in an amusing place." The famously lavish and expensive splendours of the Paris embassy make it the most coveted prize of all. Liszt, Proust and Oscar Wilde dined there. It is usually reserved as the reward for one exactly in her position, as a last post. She is 56, and friends think it should have been hers to take her through to compulsory retirement at 60.

But she is a woman, and single. The job went to a man six years her junior, Michael Jay, an expert in European affairs - as is she. "Brilliant but desiccated," says one insider of him. "He looks as if he's walked straight from the Planet Boffin," another is reported to have said. "She would have made the French sit up and take notice," a friend says. "There is absolutely no doubt at all that if she had been a man, she would never have been passed over. It's unthinkable."

All this might seem like a rather petulant storm in a Whitehall glass of claret, since the leakers against her were quick to point out that she was offered the Bonn embassy. Surely Bonn is, if anything, more important diplomatically and economically than Paris? But they knew she didn't want it. She was deputy at Bonn until 1991 and didn't want to go over old ground. ("And, let's face it," says one ex-Foreign Office man, "the French are a great deal more congenial than the Germans.")

But more than that, the job wasn't available until late next year. That wouldn't have mattered if they had left her in post as political director. But Sir John, having effectively unseated her, then offered her what she regarded as crumbs in the mean time.

"They wanted her to faff around with Cyprus, but she'd have gone mad with frustration." Insult turned to injury when they refused to raise her to Grade 1. Here, the Prime Minister stepped in, and insisted she should at least get the top grade - but now instead she is going, in a huff.

She has reached a higher rank than any other woman ever and until now she has always said she never really found many serious obstacles in her career, little direct discrimination. But now she has fallen heavily at the last fence and most observers say it wouldn't have happened to a man.

Few men, apart from Catholic priests, ever have to dedicate themselves so single-mindedly to their careers. The daughter of two doctors, after Leeds High School, Pauline Neville-Jones won a scholarship to Oxford. But when she entered the Foreign Office in 1963, women were still limited to 10 per cent of the intake. They had to resign on marriage right up until 1972. It was only four years ago that the Diplomatic Service Wives' Association bothered to rename itself the Diplomatic Spouses Association, so rare were women, let alone women with husbands. After all, it is hard to find a portable husband willing to globe-trot perpetually, with little chance of independent employment. These days even men find it hard to procure such pliable wives.

So she always knew she had to choose between a lonely life of success, or a family and a different occupation. It makes the treatment she has received at the end of her career all the more shameful because she has made a far greater sacrifice than any of the men around her.

Only seven of 183 British embassies around the world have a woman ambassador. The number of women in the top three Foreign Office grades is falling: it was 3.4 per cent in 1994 but only 1 per cent in 1995. That compares badly with an already bad average across the Civil Service of 8.5 per cent.

Pauline Neville-Jones's story will do little to encourage others to follow in her footsteps. Her failure to win the Paris embassy appointment may look pretty trivial to outsiders, but within the curious portals of the increasingly anachronistic Foreign Office to which she has devoted her life, these things matter a great deal.

Now, admit it, already you are asking yourself, well, was she up to it? Is she a troublemaker? Is she too difficult? Top women who complain about their treatment always end up sounding spoilt and tiresome, playing the gender card as an act of aggrieved revenge. The angrier they get, the more the wise old heads nod and say, "There you are! Emotional, unreasonable!" But would they ever have made her political director, chief adviser to the Prime Minister, or chief British negotiator on Bosnia, signatory to the Dayton agreement, or head of running intelligence analysis from MI6, MI5 and GCHQ if she wasn't up to it? Ambassadors are increasingly empty vessels, so the Paris job is considerably less taxing than those other posts she has held. But the plum foreign posts are plainly still just jobs for the boys (and their wives).

The tale of two embassies

The Paris embassy is Britain's most expensive foreign mission. It was bought in 1814 for pounds 36,000. Close to the Elysee Palace on the Faubourg St Honore, it costs nearly pounds 17m a year to run. Last year, British visitors to the embassy included three royals, 20 ministers and 57 MPs.

The embassy's reputation is not all based on glamour. France has long seen itself as the source of political leadership in Europe, forging the idea of European integration, while Germany provided the economic might. In diplomatic circles it is certainly the chicest place to be an ambassador: the current US ambassador is Pamela Harriman, former wife of Randolph Churchill and the legendary US diplomat Averil Harriman.

In Bonn

The pre-war British embassy in Berlin was described by the ambassador Sir Neville Henderson in 1938 as "cramped, dirty and dark". Soon after, it was razed to the ground by British bombing raids.

Although the embassy moved to Bonn after the war, its reputation has hardly improved. Its location, in a Fifties Ministry of Works building, is in stark contrast to its Paris cousin. Bonn is famously one of the dullest capitals in Europe, without the elan and glamour of Paris or even the food of Brussels. In 1999, the German government and the British embassy will move back to Berlin. It remains to be seen whether this will bring the embassy to a level of prestige matching that of Paris.

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