Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto: Africa lures Boateng

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Indy Politics

Paul Boateng, Britain's first black cabinet minister, surprised Westminster by announcing he is leaving Parliament to become Britain's next high commissioner to South Africa.

Mr Boateng, 53, who once declared "today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto" at an election count, said he was delighted to take the senior diplomatic post when Africa was at the top of Britain's priorities for the G8 presidency.

Chancellor Gordon Brown paid tribute to Mr Boateng's work at the Treasury and said that he would play an important role in the fight against poverty in Africa in his new post.

But Tony Blair's appointment of Mr Boateng, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, led to accusations of "cronyism" by the First Division Association, the union representing all grades in the diplomatic service. In addition to its impressive title, the job comes with a mansion and a salary of up to £198,000.

Paul Whiteman, the official responsible for Foreign and Commonwealth Office FDA members, said: "Mr Boateng has simply been awarded the post with no other candidate being allowed to apply. The only way to avoid accusations of cronyism and to ensure that correct decisions are made is to have open competition."

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said there was a long precedent for such appointments, with politicians leapfrogging over career diplomats, starting with Christopher Soames being appointed ambassador in Paris in 1968 and including the former Tory chairman Chris Patten who was appointed the last governor of Hong Kong.

Mr Boateng's decision to quit Westminster for a diplomatic role usually handed to ministers on the way out rather than the way up, came as a surprise to some colleagues. Mr Boateng, regarded as hugely ambitious, moved effortlessly from the hard left in Ken Livingstone's GLC to New Labour under Mr Blair. His appointment to the Cabinet in 2002 in the wake of Stephen Byers's resignation was seen as the next stage in a meteoric rise.

However, Mr Boateng, a Christian socialist with five children, emphasised that he needed no persuading to take the South Africa job, which used to carry with it the governorship of the Cape. "I think anyone who knows me knows that South Africa, Africa and the cause for development and justice in that continent has been a lifetime passion. I grew up in Africa, mentioned South Africa in my election address, and I am delighted to have this post. For so many people in Britain regardless of race, country, city or town, they see Britain's role in Africa being of central importance."

Born in Hackney, in east London, Mr Boateng was educated in Ghana but had to flee aged 15 with his English mother and his sister in 1966 when his Ghanaian father, a minister in the Nkrumah government, was thrown into prison. They escaped "with a couple of cases". In one enduring photograph which he now dislikes, he was pictured at a GLC pantomime in 1987 wearing fishnet tights and a judge's wig.

Mr Boateng underlined his commitment to South Africa on election night in 1987 when he won his seat by declaring: "We can never be free in Brent until South Africa is free too; today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto". He later explained: "It was my way of underlining the fact that there was unfinished business in South Africa."

PAUL BOATENG'S CV

14 June 1951 Born in Hackney, London. Moved to Ghana where his father was a barrister and minister in the Ghanaian government

1966 Fled to Britain with mother when father arrested in military coup

1975 Qualified as lawyer; member of GLC for five years

1987 Wins Brent South seat

1992-97 Labour spokesman on legal affairs

1997-98 Junior minister, Department of Health

1998-2001 Home Office minister, then deputy home secretary

2001-02 Financial secretary to the Treasury

2002 First black Cabinet minister

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