Lunch with the FT: Lady Ashton

To reach the Portrait Restaurant at the top of London’s National Portrait Gallery, an elegant and very long escalator bears you up through the cool, modern Ondaatje wing to the Tudor rooms.

On the blisteringly hot day of my appointment with Lady Ashton of Upholland, one of the most senior Britons on the world stage as the European Union’s first high representative for foreign affairs and security, the corridors are thronged with tourists taking refuge from the heat and with schoolchildren clutching clipboards. There is just enough space to peer past the sketching 10-year-olds to view images of the most famous and powerful women in British history, some loved, some loathed, and some beheaded.

It seems odd that Cathy Ashton’s swift ascent to the heights of international power – from junior minister in Tony Blair’s government, to cabinet minister under Gordon Brown, to European trade commissioner, then to the newly created role of high representative – has been made with so little public acclaim. What attention she does receive is generally hostile. When she was appointed last November, she was accused of lacking experience of foreign affairs. When she took up the post in December, she was criticised for her less than fluent French, the language of EU bureaucracy. In recent months, concerns have been expressed that she has not been at all EU meetings, nor in the vanguard of strategic policymaking. Voices of support from fellow British politicians, even colleagues in the previous Labour government, which put her name forward for the job, have been muted at best, leading to something of a modern-day near-beheading in parts of the media.

With its panoramic view over Whitehall’s rooftops, the Portrait Restaurant is a favourite of the political classes. Leon Brittan, himself a former European trade commissioner, is among those who waft in. The baroness energetically approaches soon after, looking cool and smart in a cream and fuchsia cotton suit. At 54, she is fresh-faced and collected in spite of eight months spent almost constantly on the move. Since her appointment as the EU’s most senior and most roving ambassador, she has been away most of the time from her Brussels base and from her family home in St Albans, Hertfordshire (she is married to political polling expert Peter Kellner and has two daughters and three stepchildren).

She is pleased to be back at the NPG where, as a trustee in 2007-2008, she was occasionally asked whose portraits should be on the walls. Has anyone from the gallery asked Ashton to sit for her own portrait, I ask, now that she is so eminent? She is appalled and her face, originally open and friendly, becomes guarded. “Oh no, I can’t think of anything worse.”

Some of the nastiest responses to Ashton’s appointment have been critical of her appearance, leading Gideon Rachman, the FT’s foreign affairs commentator, to question in his blog whether the hostility that greeted her first few months in the post might not be sexism. One senior diplomat I speak to describes Brussels as a “catty” place, adding that Ashton’s main task of creating a diplomatic service for the EU while touring the globe representing the union is currently “impossible for anyone to do properly” given the absence of a pre-existing institution with staff or a budget.

Expectations, she says wryly, are what she would change about the job, which was created more than eight years ago when the EU’s member states were high on prosperity and keen to tackle the long-term confusions and failures of EU foreign and security policy. They wanted a heavyweight figurehead, backed by a strong diplomatic corps, so that the EU, an economic superpower expanded to 27 nations, could speak with a coherent and unified voice. The question supposedly asked by US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, “If I want to speak to Europe, who do I call?” would finally be answered with a single name and number.

But when the Lisbon Treaty, which set out these reforms, was finally ratified last year, the EU nations were mired in recession or worse and had other priorities. The appointment ended up a victim of behind-closed-doors horse trading at a summit in November. Tony Blair was ruled out for the other new role of EU permanent president, with heads of government favouring the centre-right Belgian Herman Von Rompuy, so the UK demanded the right to put forward names for the socialist groupings candidate for foreign affairs chief. Gordon Brown suggested former defence secretary Geoff Hoon, Ashton or Peter Mandelson, her predecessor at the trade commission. The heads of state unanimously settled on Ashton, then with just over a year as trade commissioner under her belt. It was a surprise to everyone, including her.

She stresses that if then foreign secretary David Miliband had wanted the job (he declined, preferring to wait for Labour’s likely post-election leadership battle), she would have been happy to argue his case in Brussels – “and he would have been fantastic”. Then she leans forward across the table to defend herself again: “I didn’t campaign for it, I was asked to do it by all 27. But I’m not stupid and I do understand that people thought, ‘Hang on a minute, who is she?’ What I hope is that they will give me a shot at showing I can prioritise, can set up a new diplomatic service, can liaise with other institutions. But even if they have criticised my inability to time travel [her absence from a defence summit in Mallorca in February brought ministerial-level complaints from member states; she had chosen, instead, to attend the Ukrainian president’s inauguration because she identifies cultivating the EU’s “neighbourhood” as a strategic priority], nobody as far as I am aware has criticised my ability to do some of those things.”

We order from a menu ideally suited to a hot working day – plenty of light fish dishes. Ashton decides within seconds on salmon with a salad of watercress, peas and Jersey Royal potatoes. I choose the baked plaice with chips and tartare sauce. When the food arrives we are deep in discussion of her visit the previous week to India, a rising power that Ashton says she wants to cultivate energetically just as much as “the obvious” important relationships with the US, Russia and China. We pause to remark on the extraordinary fatness of my chips, piled up in a yellow stack like children’s toys. “It’s Duplo!” Ashton grins.

This easy break into humour proves typical of Ashton’s informal manner. Her own favourite joke about the Kissinger question is meant to hammer home a warning. She says the Americans do now have a number to call for Europe, but that they will hear Ashton’s voice (a soft Lancashire accent) asking them to “press one for the French position, two for the German position, three for the UK, etc.” She is at the beginning of a process of creating an effective voice for Europe, she explains, and that will take time to achieve. “For now we are building the foundations.”

I ask whether Brussels is ready for the unfussy, consensus-building Ashton leadership style. She shrugs, then locks back into the direct eye contact and the engaged posture that characterises a friendly but intense conversational style. “This is going to be done my way,” she promises with quiet determination, citing negotiation, organisational development, and team-building as the attributes that qualify her for the job.

Indeed, as a career bureaucrat and manager, she might be viewed as ideally suited to her current challenge: designing, building and finding the resources for the EU’s new diplomatic service. Ashton has managed a succession of campaign groups, public sector and private philanthropic organisations before being brought into the government by Tony Blair in 1999. It may not be glamorous to have run the Hertfordshire Health Authority (1998 to 2001), and her time at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) during the late 1970s made new colleagues suspicious, but peers in other parties say that during her time as Labour’s leader in the House of Lords in 2007 she was praised, even loved.

As she points out herself, Ashton’s main problem in her current role is that she does not meet people’s preconceptions of a foreign affairs supremo. She likens it to a film audience’s shock at seeing an unconventional actor cast as their favourite character in a novel. High representative is a grand role but grandeur is not her style – she also plays down her peerage, quoting how one of her daughters had once explained to a teacher that her mother’s title of being a baroness meant “something between a politician and a princess”.

One source of strength seems to be good relationships outside Brussels, particularly with the American foreign policy machine and secretary of state Hillary Clinton, whose warmth she appreciated during the initial blast of personal attacks and with whose office she enjoys “a constant hum of traffic” – giving the lie, she says, to claims that America has lost interest in our continent.

So, I ask, did the EU really miss out when it didn’t have one person and one institution to talk to? “China particularly has made it clear to me that they are keen on having an interlocutor that is European with whom they can talk about things that affect all 27 countries. I have been at great pains to say it is not instead of bilateral relationships, but there are things that we do together where we are stronger, and the obvious example is trade.” She is proud of being one of the first politicians allowed into Gaza since the building of the wall, and frank that the “clout” she enjoys there is because of €1bn in aid spent in the Palestinian territories. “I call this job, ‘Where politics meets economics’, and it’s important that we bring the two together,” she says.

On the political issues, which range from the thorny to the insoluble, she believes that it is important to have a European figurehead give an EU view – on nuclear non-proliferation, for example, which was the subject of her first address to the United Nations Security Council in May. “The message is, ‘We all agree’, and that is very powerful,” she argues, particularly as China, Russia and the US become impatient with contradictory voices and positions from within the EU.

According to the Centre for European Reform (CER), a pro-EU think-tank, around 80 per cent of the EU’s foreign policy failures are due to the inability of larger member states to arrive at a common position. In practice, there are only a handful of issues on which Ashton can hope to speak for all: Iran, the Balkans and “on a good day” the Middle East. But Charles Grant, the CER’s director, says creating a more effective institution to replace the confusing way foreign policy was split between the rotating presidency, the council of ministers and the commission, is overdue.

One old Brussels hand says Ashton could end up bequeathing her new diplomatic corps to a successor whose face is a better fit but that creating an institution that will outlive the individuals in charge of it is a noble labour.

“When I got the job it was me and the treaty,” she says. “Nobody handed me a blueprint and said, ‘Congratulations, here is the plan.’ One of the things that was very clear was that until you had the legitimacy of the Lisbon Treaty coming into force, you couldn’t pre-empt the decisions of the Irish people and the Czech courts, so that clearly meant that things weren’t done. Ever since [the treaty was ratified by all member states in November], we have been building but I don’t yet have a centralised management structure, I don’t have a service and I don’t yet have a budget, so [for] everything I do, every trip, I have to submit requests.”

Some believe that Ashton’s conciliatory approach – the emollient and unthreatening manner that has led others to label her unimpressive – could make her the ideal person to get Britain’s new prime minister David Cameron and his foreign secretary William Hague on board for a more effective collaboration with EU partners and institutions.

When I ask her whether Britain’s place at the world’s top tables could be under threat from defence cuts and a retreat from Blair’s interventionism, she points to Cameron’s attitude at a European Council meeting last month. “The prime minister was very good at setting out what he wanted and getting what he wanted and needed, but doing it in a way that was collegiate,” she says. “That’s good for Britain.” However if, as Hague declared at the beginning of this month, he wants to see the UK become a much more powerful presence in EU bureaucracies, the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government will need to be considerably more robust and energetic than its Labour predecessor in supporting compatriots it manoeuvres into top jobs.

She’s about to be whisked off to the next meeting, to see George Osborne at the Treasury. Trumped by the chancellor, I receive the politician’s swift but firm handshake and the last of many warm and winning smiles as she leaves. Tackling the last of those fat chips, I wonder what it would take to make Britain appreciate the efforts of a woman such as Cathy Ashton. I hope they are planning that portrait.

Portrait Restaurant

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London

Baked whole plaice with hand-cut chunky chips £16.50

Cured organic salmon, Jersey Royal potatoes, peas and watercress salad £17.00

Bottle still mineral water £3.65

Bottle fizzy mineral water £3.65

Total (including service) £45.90

From Wigan to world’s highest-paid female politician

1956: Born March 20 in Upholland, Lancashire.

1970s: Attends Upholland Grammar School and then Wigan Mining and Technical College.

1977: Graduates from Bedford College, London, with BSc in Economics and Sociology.

1977-1979: Works as administrative secretary for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Subsequently became national treasurer and vice-chairman.

1983-1989: Becomes director of Business in the Community, an organisation set up to encourage social responsibility in business.

1988: Marries journalist and YouGov pollster Peter Kellner. He introduces her to Tony and Cherie Blair.

1998-2001: Becomes chairman of Hertfordshire Health Authority and vice-president of National Council for One Parent Families.

1999: Enters parliament after being awarded life peerage by Labour government at request of prime minister Tony Blair.

2001: Appointed junior minister in Department of Education and Skills. Helps pass legislation to prevent childminders from smacking children.

2004: Takes on ministerial position at Ministry of Constitutional Affairs.

2006: Named politician of year by gay rights group, Stonewall, for her work on equality and human rights.

2006: Appointed to Privy Council, the body of senior advisers to British sovereign. Quits role as Blair’s farming minister after just four days, saying she does not want to do role part-time alongside her job overseeing human rights and civil justice policy.

2007-2008: Appointed leader of House of Lords, the fourth woman to hold this position, and Lord President of the Council. She is integral in pushing Lisbon Treaty through House of Lords.

2008: Replaces Peter Mandelson as trade commissioner in Brussels.

2009: Appointed high representative for foreign affairs and security policy for the EU with backing of Gordon Brown and unanimous approval of all 27 heads of state. Becomes highest-paid female politician in world, earning a package worth £328,000 a year. Charles Clarke, former home secretary, says: “Cathy is a bit surprised and so is everyone else.” Ashton says: “Judge me by what I do and I think you’ll be pleased and proud of me.”

Compiled by Victoria Maw and Kirsty Blake-Knox

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