Do our ambassadors spoil themselves?

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Diplomats are up in arms at David Cameron's suggestion that their official residences may be too palatial

One complained: "We are being compared to the bloody awful French football team at the World Cup." Another sighed: "It's a shame that he feels it is necessary to speak in humiliating terms about people who are working hard for their country – sometimes at personal risk – just to get laughs from businessmen." Indeed, Britain's diplomats were less than impressed by David Cameron's declarations yesterday about getting value for money from the Foreign Office.

At a "leadership conference" at the Foreign Office, more than 200 ambassadors, high commissioners and senior officials were summoned back (economy class) from their missions to see the Prime Minister, who told them they could only justify their "plush" residences if they acted as agents for British business abroad. Speaking later to business leaders gathered at Downing Street for a garden drinks reception, where he called for their backing for the export push, Mr Cameron laughed: "We made them all travel economy class, wherever they came from, I'm pleased to say." The assembled audience laughed.

Diplomats noted that members from the commercial field, whose activities have helped to create the current economic turmoil, were spared from demands to make sacrifices on this occasion.

Mr Cameron, sitting beside Nick Clegg, said: "I want you to ask yourself every day: 'What am I doing to promote British business?' If you want to keep Britain's great ambassadorial residences, then I want you to show me that every day you are using them relentlessly to open new trade links and to generate new business for Britain."

Mr Cameron's strictures come amid demands from Downing Street that government departments present proposals to cut their budgets by up to 40 per cent. Various ministries are using "loopholes" to get round this. The Foreign Office, it is claimed, hopes to pass off some of its spending as international aid, which will not be cut.

The Conservative former foreign secretary and two former senior civil servants warned yesterday of the damage to Britain's role abroad from the prospective cuts. Lord Howe of Aberavon, who was foreign secretary for six years in the 1980s, said that instead of having its funding reduced, the Foreign Office should receive increased funding. "A substantial enhancement of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is fundamental to the successful conduct of foreign policy," he said.

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, head of the FCO from 1997 to 2002, added: "The fat on the diplomatic service is long gone. You can't wield the knife again without losing global reach and influence." Lord Butler of Brockwell, cabinet secretary for a decade from 1988, added: "I fear that we will do irreparable harm to one of Britain's greatest sources of overseas influence, the respect still felt for our diplomatic functions and our cultural activities overseas."

The last government was criticised for trying to sell off embassies in some smaller countries, with negligible commercial value, while leaving the ones in places such as Paris untouched. Last night, an FCO spokesman said: "Ambassadorial residences are used intensively for leveraging influence in support of the Government's objectives."

Grand designs: prime diplomatic properties

Dublin

Glencairn House and its estate, the official residence of successive British ambassadors to Ireland since the 1950s, has been dogged by controversy since the Foreign Office sold and then bought back the Victorian gothic house at the end of the century – leaving the threat of homelessness hanging over HM’s man for a while. Former ambassador and resident Christopher Ewart-Biggs, who wore a smoked-glass monocle over an artificial eye, was blown up by a Provisional IRA landmine near the gates in 1976.

Rome

One could have excused Edward Chaplin and his wife, Nicola, for skipping through the 11-acre grounds of Villa Wolkonsky when they rolled up in 2006 after two years in charge of the embassy in Baghdad. Swapping bomb defences for Roman ruins and dust-storms for the perfume of a thousand manicured roses, they found themselves at one of Britain’s finest postings in the heart of the Italian capital. Visitors to the property, acquired in the early 1950s, enter through a grand marble hall that leads to labyrinthine reception rooms, living quarters and a mirrored ballroom hung with four vast chandeliers. The gardens include rare specimens, fountains, the ruins of a Roman aqueduct and, crucially, orange trees used to produce the Chaplins’ famous Villa Wolkonsky marmalade.

New Delhi

Another magnificent Lutyens-designed property, it has been occupied by British high commissioners to India since 1946. The whitewashed mansion formerly occupied by senior officials of the Raj is set in 3.6 acres of prime diplomatic real estate in one of south Delhi's most sought-after areas. It has always been regarded as a plum on the UK diplomatic circuit. It boasts a swimming pool – a rare luxury in water-starved Delhi. Every year in March His Excellency holds a cocktail party in the extravagant gardens to celebrate the Queen's birthday, complete with a brass band to strike up the national anthem.

Havana

Neo-classical pile built in 1917. Large iron gates lead to a cherub-encrusted fountain and a hall paved with the finest Italian marble. When she isn’t clinking glasses or chewing on knotty diplomatic problems in one of the world’s last communist states, the Ambassador, Dianna Melrose, may bathe in her indoor swimming pool, overlooked by wicker sofas, palm fronds and a ceiling of carved and painted curlicues.

Paris

A sumptuous ambassadorial outpost that throws the most lavish parties. Built in 1720, the residence was bought by the Duke of Wellington in 1814 for £35,000 from Napoleon Bonaparte's sister Pauline, and still contains original furniture. It is on the narrow, chic rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, sandwiched between fashion houses and the Élysée Palace. The ballroom is linked to the dining room via a glass gallery, and large cocktail parties are held in the English-style gardens, which have previously been home to grazing sheep (1880s) and convalescent allied servicemen (1945). The structure and roof became in serious need of repair but Monuments Historiques have helped restore the building to its imperial glory.

Washington

A sprawling redbrick palace designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and built in 1928 in the style of a Georgian country manor (wings, long corridors, pavilions, tall chimneys, stone dressings), the ambassador’s residence is hidden from the street. Its eight acres of stunning rose gardens, rolling lawns and greenhouses stuffed with tropical and hardy perennial plants are the envy of others on Embassy Row. In Washington, most of the United Kingdom’s entertaining, and much of its business, takes place here and not at the British embassy. An invitation to dine in the august ballroom remains a major coup for members of the Washington social set. Like Paris, Beijing and Cape Town, the Washington mission is issued with a Royal Doulton black-and-gold Minton dinner service, whereas British diplomats in other cities have to make do with finding their own crockery. Outside, a cigar-clutching statue of Winston Churchill stands, one foot inside the marked embassy grounds, the other within the District of Columbia.

Cape Town

The High Commissioner’s gated, nine-bedroomed Cape Town residence features traditional Cape Dutch architecture (rounded gables, thatched roof, white-washed) while inside it has the style of an English country lodge. A panelled hall opens on to an antique-strewn drawing room with a grand piano and 1830s writing desk that look out onto the large swimming pool, floodlit tennis courts, tiered four-acre gardens and Table Mountain (bathed in pink floodlights at night). The dining table seats 28. The High Commissioner's bedroom (surrendered only if the Sovereign comes to stay) overlooks the garden and the dramatic views of Cape Town. The commissioner (currently Nicola Brewer) employs up to 26 domestic servants, maids and gardeners, and has another residence in Pretoria.

Addis Ababa

With a grand chandelier and splendid stone fireplace in the main drawing room, the ambassador’s residence was built in 1911 from local stone with an asbestos (now tin) roof around two internal courtyards and set in comely lawns with flowering borders. Its pillared portico is covered with wisteria and the two flanking wings are ablaze with bougainvillaea for much of the year. Much of the original furniture was locally made owing to “the difficulty and expense of transporting furniture from the coast”, according to Foreign Office memo dated December 1909 – the only means of transport before 1917 was by camel. An ebony Bechstein grand sits in the drawing room, a gift from Emperor Haile Selassie. The hot ticket each year is the Burns Night Supper.

Rachel Hovenden

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