Karen Pierce, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN, is being tipped by diplomats to become the first British female ambassador to Washington, filling the vacancy caused by the resignation of Kim Darroch last year.
Sir Kim was forced to quit after confidential diplomatic cables criticising Donald Trump were made public. Senior British diplomats say Dame Karen is the “hot favourite” to succeed him, with one saying: “She is certainly the Foreign Office’s candidate for the job.”
The Washington appointment needs a safe pair of hands. It comes as the UK is leaving the EU and looking to strike a new trade deal with the US. Although prime minister Boris Johnson enjoys a good relationship with Mr Trump, relations between the two allies are not always smooth.
On Friday foreign secretary Dominic Raab accused the US of a denial of justice after Washington refused to extradite the wife a US diplomat who drove on the wrong side of the road and killed a British teenager. Britain has also raised American hackles with its proposed new digital services tax and the possible participation of Huawei in its 5G network, despite repeated warnings from US officials.
British diplomats argue that the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani earlier this month reinforced the view in the FCO that a seasoned diplomat needed to be sent to Washington. “The advert was posted just after the drone strike — that wasn’t a coincidence,” said one.
The final decision on the posting is expected to be taken by Mr Johnson in the coming weeks. He worked closely with Dame Karen during his time as foreign secretary. “They get on very well,” said one FCO official.
A former colleague added that Mr Johnson “clearly rates her” and described her as a diplomat who could work well with Mr Trump but would be able to transition with ease from a Republican administration if he fails win a second term in this year’s presidential election.
“She is a bubbly, extrovert personality with past experience of working in Washington,” they said. “I am sure she would do the job well. And it would be good, at last, to have a woman in the role.”
Dame Karen also has high media profile in the US, where she is a frequent interviewee on cable news channels, including Fox News. “Americans like her,” says one colleague.
Since joining the Foreign Office in 1981, Dame Karen has been posted to Tokyo, the Balkans and Geneva. She served as the UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan in 2015 and 2016.
Colleagues say she is a prominent figure on the UN Security Council, and is widely respected for her grasp of detail and her robust debating style. “She is a very serious diplomat, she knows her stuff,” said one. She can also be flamboyant, once wearing a boa at a UN meeting.
Just weeks into the Security Council role, Dame Karen made headlines when she traded barbs with Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, in a style not too dissimilar to that of Mr Johnson over the nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury.
After comparing the incident to Midsomer Murders, a UK police drama famous for bizarre ways of killing off its characters, Mr Nebenzia suggested that his country should take part in the investigation into the poisoning.
Ms Pierce retorted with a reference to the Sherlock Holmes stories, telling the ambassador that “allowing Russian scientists into an investigation when they are the most likely perpetrators of the crime in Salisbury would be like Scotland Yard inviting in Professor Moriarty”.
“Boris thinks she’s done a good job in New York, which plays to her favour,” said one diplomatic official. “There is also a feeling that he would like to be the prime minister to send the first ever female ambassador to America.”
Another prominent female candidate, Antonia Romeo, permanent secretary at the Department of International Trade, has pulled out of the race, despite having experience of US-UK trade in a previous role as consul-general in New York. She is now thought to be setting her sights on becoming the chief civil servant of a new business and trade “super-ministry”, if the new department is created after Brexit.
There are a number of others vying for the Washington role. Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill had been tipped to move to the US, but is now expected to stay in Downing Street and oversee a far-reaching shake-up of the government machine.
Also in the race is Barbara Woodward, ambassador to China; Philip Barton, director-general at the Foreign Office; and Matthew Rycroft, permanent secretary at the department for international development and former UK ambassador to the UN. Sir Tim Barrow, who has served as ambassador to Moscow and the EU, is also said to be considering throwing his hat into the ring.
However, Dame Karen remains the frontrunner, with the Iran crisis leaving many in Whitehall in favour of appointing a traditional diplomat.
“Karen just has the advantage of knowing Washington well and has the sort of personality that goes down well with Americans,” said one diplomat. “I think he [Mr Johnson] will go with the candidate recommended by the Foreign Office machine, but you never know with Boris and he has kept very quiet on this.”
Asked if she wanted the highly coveted job, Dame Karen told the Sunday Times in September: “Of course I’d absolutely love to do it. It’s a wonderful, challenging job. But it’s up to the PM, up to the foreign secretary, and there’ll be a queue around the block.”