Jeremy Hunt is inviting business leaders to become British ambassadors in a move that will prompt Whitehall jitters about the prospect of a US-style system of political appointments.
In a speech on Wednesday evening the foreign secretary is set to unveil plans to open up a limited number of ambassadorial roles to applicants outside the civil service.
“The strength of our network is its professionalism, which has given us what I believe is the finest diplomatic service in the world. But we must never close our eyes to the approaches and skills of other industries,” he will say.
Mr Hunt envisages one or two ambassadors being recruited every year from the private sector, typically executives approaching the end of their conventional career.
Peter Ricketts, former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, said he hoped that the initiative was not the “thin end of the wedge”.
“An ambassador is far more than just a salesman for Britain,” said Lord Ricketts. “The cultures are different, the skills you bring from business don’t always work in the public sector . . . and what signal does this send out about the government’s view of the professionalism of FCO staff?”
Mr Hunt’s allies said the scheme was not a criticism of the calibre of civil servants, but rather that some senior business figures with specific knowledge of a country could bring a new dimension to the diplomatic service.
“We are talking here about a top-end scheme aimed at top-end CEOs in relation to some of the top jobs,” said one. “But it will be properly transparent and openly advertised.”
The FCO plans to pay for an advertising campaign to attract the potential recruits from Britain’s boardrooms.
Until now the UK has mostly drawn its diplomats from the ranks of career civil servants, although there have been exceptions.
Ed Llewellyn, currently ambassador in Paris, is former chief of staff to David Cameron. Other previous political appointees include Paul Boateng, a peer and former Labour MP who was high commissioner to South Africa, and Alistair Goodlad, an ex-Tory MP dispatched to Canberra.
The news was welcomed by Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, who said the role of an ambassador was to “open doors” in other countries.
“You could have Prince Harry as ambassador to Washington or David Cameron in Shanghai — just as an example — doing the ambassadorial role while someone else is the professional ‘head of mission’,” he suggested.
But Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, said it was a “worrying” development. “Diplomats are made not born and the UK’s interests are best served by a professional diplomatic service,” he said.
Mr Hunt will say in his speech to the Policy Exchange think-tank that he wants to expand the British diplomatic network with 12 new posts and nearly 1,000 more personnel.
There will be a new embassy in Djibouti and a new mission in Jakarta, at the headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while the British Office in Chad will be upgraded to an embassy.
Mr Hunt is also boosting language training by doubling the number of diplomats abroad who speak the local tongue from 500 to 1,000. The number of languages taught within the FCO’s internal language school will increase from 50 to 70 — including Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Shona and Gujarati.
US presidents typically appoint political allies to plum diplomatic jobs in cities such as Paris and London, while leaving more gruelling postings such as Kabul to government officials.
In recent decades typically about a third of American ambassadors have been political appointments, including Woody Johnson, the ambassador to London.
“If they are competing against internal candidates to see who is most suitable that would be good,” said Lord Ricketts. “If it becomes a case of ministers giving people offers without much due process that would be a blow to morale.”