Who will be our next ambassador to the Holy See?

Could General Lord Guthrie be the next British Ambassador to the Holy See?

Now that Ann Widdecombe has ruled herself out of being Britain’s next ambassador to the Holy See due to medical reasons, who are the runners and riders to take over from Francis Campbell?

Nearly all of the names being bandied around are well-known and none of them from the ranks of the diplomatic service. Such is the prestige and stature of the role, transformed largely thanks to Campbell’s efforts, the ambassadorial role has become a political appointment that warrants someone of particularly high stature and experience.

The question is would they be willing to do the job and feel they could do it.

The names being mentioned naturally depend somewhat on the views and preferences of the persons naming them, but at the moment the current leading contenders are:

Lord Patten of Barnes:
The 66 year-old Chancellor of Oxford University is considered to be the “logical choice” having had a wealth of foreign policy experience as EU Commissioner and the last Governor of Hong Kong. Combining the job with his chancellorship wouldn’t be impossible (the Duke of Edinburgh is Chancellor of Cambridge). He is described as a ‘liberal Catholic’ but some think he would still fit the ambassadorial role “like a square peg in a square hole”.

The Earl of Ancram:
Michael Ancram, 65, the 13th Marquess of Lothian, is a former Conservative minister who stood down at the last election. Born in London but of Scottish descent, the Ampleforth-educated peer was once Shadow Foreign and Defence Secretary. He supports multilateral nuclear disarmament, an important point of convergence with the Holy See.

The Lord Deben
Better known as John Gummer, Lord Deben, 70, became a peer in June after a distinguished parliamentary career in which served most notably as Secretary of State for the Environment (1993-1997). A convert to Catholicism from the Church of England and a former columnist for The Catholic Herald, his strong environmental credentials would tie in well with Benedict XVI’s repeated calls for responsible stewardship of creation.

Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank
A convert to Catholicism and a Knight of Malta, Lord Guthrie was Chief of the Defence Staff (1997-2001) and head of the British Army (1994-1997). Like Michael Ancram, Lord Guthrie, 71, is a member of the Top Level Group of UK Parliamentarians for Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament and Non-proliferation (TLG), a cross-party parliamentary group.

Lord Camoys
The 7th Baron Camoys was the first Catholic Lord Chamberlain since the Reformation (1998-2000). A banker by trade and former deputy chairman of Sotheby’s, Lord Camoys, 70, was made a papal knight in 2006 by Benedict XVI. In June 2009, he was appointed chairman of the Tablet Trust.

Lady Powell
Born in Italy, Lady Powell (nee Bonardi) is the wife of Margaret Thatcher’s former Downing Street advisor, Lord Powell of Bayswater. Friends with David Cameron and Tony Blair who have both stayed at her Rome home, Lady Powell is very well connected and described by some as “the ultimate compromise candidate”. A leading Rome socialite and recently appointed papal correspondent on The Spectator, it’s said there are few gatherings with cardinals where Lady Powell is not present. One government source said she is “a wonderful lady who would do the job extremely well.”

John Battle
A former Labour Member of Parliament for Leeds West (1987-2010), Battle, 59, once spent three years in seminary. Strongly pro-life, he was opposed to the 1991 Gulf War, has keen interests in international development and has been a longstanding champion for East Timor. He was made a papal knight in 2006.

Other Labour Catholics are also being mentioned as potential candidates. They include former ministers Helen Liddle, now Baroness Liddell of Coatdyke, Paul Murphy MP, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Ruth Kelly, a former Secretary of State for Education and member of Opus Dei who stood down at the last election.

To be ambassador to the Holy See is not a standard Foreign Office position: it has a very large international dimension coupled with a very strong domestic component. It therefore requires someone with knowledge of foreign affairs as well as established and direct links with the government of the day.

When Campbell took up the post in 2006, he had worked four years as Tony Blair’s EU policy adviser in Downing Street. He therefore already knew many key figures and had privileged access to members of the cabinet and civil service.

But it’s also important to have someone with gravitas. Some very delicate issues have to be confronted and in the past four years, the ambassador has had to deal with the gay adoption issue, human-animal hybrid embryo legislation, and controversies over education.

“It needs someone who knows the issues, which ones to navigate, and how to keep and maintain the diplomatic relationship despite tensions,” said one source. “It’s delicate because it’s got a huge domestic constituency, so to do that you have to get ringing round.”

Each of the above candidates would therefore fit the bill, but whether they would step up to the plate is another question and so far no candidate other than Miss Widdecombe has shown such enthusiasm for the role.

“We’re struggling to come up with anyone who would probably do it,” said one government source. “We’ve now probably only got Francis until the New Year so we’d better get cracking.”