As rumors swirl about her successor, UK ambassador plans to stay as long as she can

Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, told a Washington gathering Thursday night that she would “have to be dragged out of here by my fingernails.” That was a disarming quip for a crowd gathered to launch White House Correspondents Dinner weekend in the opulent gardens of the British embassy. It was, however, closer to the truth than Pierce’s cheery brand of diplomatic caution acknowledged.

Speaking about her time in office at a special recording of POLITICO’s Power Play podcast in front of a live audience at the embassy, Pierce refused to speculate about why an announcement of her successor, expected in senior diplomacy circles in both London and Washington this week, has not been made.

A convivial figure on the ambassadorial circuit in Washington since her arrival in 2020, Pierce judged her words carefully: “I think the next ambassador will arrive in early 2025, and I will stay till then.”

The uncertainty about who will next occupy the grand residence of 1300 Massachusetts Avenue is the result of a stand-off between British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak — who decided to appoint Tim Barrow, a career diplomat who has served in Moscow and as the top representee to the EU during Brexit — and the Labour party, which is likely to form the next U.K. government.

Officials in London and Washington have been riveted by the saga of a putative successor to Pierce. The current U.K. national security adviser, Barrow was slated to be announced as the winner of a swiftly conducted internal Foreign and Commonwealth Office contest for the plumb role, but so far there has been silence.

“All the signs were that this was about to happen,” said a person with knowledge of the process who was not authorized to speak publicly. “Then nothing. We were all very surprised.”

Sunak’s timely transition plan for the ambassadorship was intended to signal continuity in trans-Atlantic foreign and security policy, given uncertainty about implications for Ukraine and the Middle East policy depending on whether President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump will be in charge when the newcomer presents credentials early in 2025.

Britain’s prime minister came close to confirming the intended appointment when questioned by reporters on a trip to Warsaw earlier this week, claiming that it was “entirely normal, entirely keeping with precedent” to appoint ambassadors well ahead of their start date to help them “acclimatize” and build relationships in their next job. He also confirmed that a successor in the national security role from the defense staff had been appointed.

But the opposition Labour party has objected to naming a new key envoy so close to a general election — likely to be held by the end of this year, and with the opposition party now far ahead in the polls. A person with close knowledge of the Labour party confirmed that there has been “consternation” at the move and argued that a significant post should fall within the remit of the incoming government.

The stand-off has led to speculation that Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, might even ask for the appointment process to be rerun if he becomes Britain’s next leader.

Asked if the handover was turning out to be unusually eventful, Pierce on Thursday deployed a wry guillotine. “The Foreign Office is very boring about two things and two things only,” she said. “One is that it does not reveal the contents of diplomatic conversations, and we don’t comment on future appointments.”

But she paid tribute to congressional leaders for supporting the passage of $61 billion in U.S. aid to Ukraine. The package, which was part of a wider raft of support for Israel and Taiwan, was signed by Biden this week. “The central message, which is going to give Ukraine a huge psychological boost,” Pierce said, “is that America is behind her, and Congress is behind her, and our will to support Ukraine is undimmed.”

“So, I salute the congressional leadership in the House and in the Senate on both sides … and it’s a collective expression of our determination to push back on President Putin’s ambitions.”

Asked about perceptions in Washington of the volatility in British politics in the last two years — including three prime ministers in the space of three months — the ambassador was diplomatic.

“There was a little bit of a wry smile on the faces of some American politicians when we had that quick turnover of prime ministers, because it’s not what you think of when you think of British politics,” she reflected. “On the contrary, you think of something solid that doesn’t change very much for years. But we’re through all that.”

Listen to Ambassador Pierce’s conversation with POLITICO Power Play host Anne McElvoy here: