Diplomatic reshuffle looms as Hague makes mark on Foreign Office

A new cast to go with a new project, William Hague has outlined the government's vision of Britain's place in the world, now, significant changes may take place in the diplomatic service to accompany the overhaul of foreign policy.

Key posts in Washington, Paris and Delhi as well as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London may change hands with some familiar figures in the circuit disappearing in the process.

Unlike New Labour in 1997, the new administration has not carried out a cull of senior civil servants and Tory sources insist that the changes at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be made to "refresh" teams rather than for political reasons. So far, the only major change has been the move of Sir Peter Ricketts, the Permanent Under Secretary at the department to hold the newly created post of David Cameron's National Security Advisor.

However, there are persistent reports that Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the former confidant of Tony Blair, the ambassador to the US, may be replaced after three years at the post.

Sir Nigel is very much a heavyweight with a successful career which ranged from the corridors of Brussels to helping secure the release of hapless British sailors captured by the Iranians in the Gulf through talks with Tehran's security strongman Ali Larijani.

As a grammar schoolboy he was also seen to be among the first to break through the establishment glass ceiling at the FCO, although his patrician demeanour belied that quality.

Sir Nigel is also seen as a part of the New Labour regime and, with his stint in Washington having nine months to run, may get eased out early.

The resultant reshuffle is likely to have wide-ranging repercussions with Sir Richard Stagg, the High Commissioner in Delhi, getting the plumb America job. The Indians, with their civil service culture stuck in many ways in the days of the Raj, were rather taken aback by the informal style of Sir Richard, a former press spokesman in Brussels, when he arrived, but since then he has described by one diplomat as a "charming man with twinkling eyes".

Sir Richard's popularity may be a factor against his going to DC as the new government is keen to nurture ties with emerging powers. David Cameron is leading a large delegation to Delhi later this month and the only time the Conservative manifesto mentioned "special relationship", it was not about the US but India.

If Sir Richard does go to Washington, the Delhi job may pass to Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the UK envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who has gone on "extended leave" from Kabul and is almost certain not to go back.

Sir Sherard's departure was ascribed to his disillusionment with the policy being pursued in Afghanistan and after he had clashed with American officials. It was the start of a period of turmoil over Western policy in the war with the dramatic sacking, within days, of General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in the country.

Sir Sherard had long been a feature of the Kabul diplomatic and social scene with his many "friends", across ages, sexes and occupations, appearing in his Facebook. He was also one of the most enthusiastic dancers in the embassy balls. In his day, job Sir Sherard had built up extensive knowledge and contacts but he is thought to have felt that his role in the "Af-Pak" scene was becoming redundant with the appointment of Mark Sedwill, the former British ambassador to Kabul, as the senior Nato civilian representative in Afghanistan.

According to senior diplomatic sources, Sir Sherard, a former ambassador to Israel – where he drove around in a black cab wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella – and Saudi Arabia, had wanted to become Permanent Under-Secretary (PUS) to succeed Sir Peter Ricketts. Martin Donnelly, who was the FCO's director general for Strategic Finance, has been made acting PUS.

Initially, the feeling was that Mr Donnelly's posting was purely temporary. But at a time when Whitehall departments are being asked to make at least 25 per cent reductions to their budget, his background in finance is seen as an asset.

It is also seen to be to his advantage that before joining the FCO in 2004 he had worked at the Treasury and at the Home Office and would thus not be in thrall to the King Charles Street culture.

Mr Donnelly's staying at this new place would, say diplomats, be a disappointment to Sir Peter Westmacott, the ambassador in Paris who once worked for Prince Charles. Sir Peter, who is 60, wants a stint as PUS before his retirement, but a generous consolation may come with the offer of the embassy in Washington where he had been before as counsellor. He had also been Director for the America's at the FCO.

Sir Peter had maintained good relations with the Elysée Palace saying of Nicolas Sarkozy: "He does not do langue de bois [waffle] and expresses his views in a way that is very clear and often very amusing.

"While taking care to say that he could not comment on party politics, he has also said: "There was quite a lot of disappointment among fellow [EU] members in the centre-right group when the Conservatives set up another grouping in the European parliament because they felt it would dilute the effectiveness of the British voice and weaken the size of the group."

FCO officials say their efforts to break from the stereotype can be seen by the number of women now in senior posts, Sir Sherard has been temporarily replaced in Kabul by Karen Pierce, the highly regarded FCO director for South Asia and Afghanistan.

Pauline Neville-Jones, the new security minister, is based at the Home, rather than Foreign, Office, but with the international dimension of terrorism will be involved in shaping foreign policy.

Nicola Brewer, who succeeded Paul Boateng as the High Commissioner in South Africa, is expected to keep climbing the FCO ladder as are Marriot Leslie, formerly head of defence and intelligence at the FCO now UK representative at Nato and Dame Anne Pringle, now ambassador in Moscow.

The possible diplomatic shake-up

Karen Pierce
From FCO director for South Asia and Afghanistan
To Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan

Sir Sherard Cowper-Cowles
From Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan
To High Commissioner in Delhi

Sir Richard Stagg
From High Comissioner in Delhi
To Ambassador to the US

Sir Nigel Sheinwald
From Ambassador to the US
To Unknown