Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.
Sir Philip Barton, the British High Commissioner to India, has been announced as the incoming Permanent Under-Secretary of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). He will take over from Sir Simon McDonald, who is stepping down at Johnson’s request, on September 1 and oversee the long-awaited merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DfID)
An FCO lifer, Barton will inherit complex internal dynamics and be vital to the success of Johnson’s mission to reshape Britain’s role on the world stage. He has been with the FCO since 1986, punctuated occasionally by secondments to the Cabinet Office. Early assignments included Caracas, Nicosia and Gibraltar, and he was Private Secretary to the Prime Minister under Major, then Blair.
From 2011 he was Deputy Head of Mission to the USA in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2016 he was High Commissioner to Pakistan, and he is currently serving as High Commissioner to India. He has been tested during political crises, as the Director General, Consular and Security at the time of the Salisbury poisonings and most recently as Director General of the Covid-19 Response at the Cabinet Office.
His appointment has thus far had a positive reception. Dominic Raab has called him an “outstanding public servant and diplomat” with “experience across all areas of foreign policy.” Sir Mark Sedwill said he “will bring to the role an understanding of overseas development funding together with experience of international relations.” Jeremy Hunt Tweeted that “he is one of the most thoughtful & diligent civil servants I worked with & carries great wisdom lightly.” Andrew Adonis described him as “an immensely able & experienced ambassador who is well equipped for the big challenge of heading the diplomatic service at this time of crisis.”
He is well-liked and trusted. It is important that he is perceived as a safe pair of hands and a natural choice within the civil service. With multiple high-profile civil servants stepping down since the 2019 general election, a controversial appointment to lead FCDO would have put No 10 on the back foot at a time when it should be looking to craft a positive vision for the future.
For Barton, the challenges are both internal and external. Within the FCDO, a new hierarchy must be built. Creating clear chains of command from two parallel organisations with competing interests will cause friction. Buzzwords like “coherence” and “integration” will seem premature if the new organisation is wrought with internal power struggles and turf wars. We should have some idea of Barton’s initial success by the end of September.
Long term, he will need to ensure the functions of the FCDO’s constituent departments can be executed. Tensions are an inevitability, and tailoring a unified mission will be difficult when commercial and political interests and poverty relief pull in different directions. All this as Britain seeks new trade deals across the globe and weighs its future relationship with Europe.
Barton appears to be an exceptionally good fit to take on these challenges. His background is less Eurocentric than his predecessors in the role. He looks away from Brussels and towards Commonwealth nations with whom Johnson will be eager to renew relationships.
His experiences will also help to ensure Britain continues to be a world leader in international development. Pakistan is one of the five biggest recipients of UK aid funding, and Barton’s time as High Commissioner will have given him a better understanding of the challenges of poverty relief than his peers appointed to industrialised European nations. This will go some way to settle the nerves of those who worry international development will be an afterthought for the new office.
Barton will take the helm at the FCDO at a time of internal upheaval and international uncertainty. His career path is typical enough to avoid controversy but his specific experiences may prove invaluable to performing the multiple tasks which his success will depend upon. The Government aims to complete the formation of FCDO by the end of September, so we will know soon enough whether he is up to the task.