By Jerene Jones
May 30, 1977 12:00 PM

When he decided to post a new ambassador to Washington, British Prime Minister James Callaghan grasped possibly the second most nettlesome candidate available. The PM bypassed David Frost, only to tap his own son-in-law, London Times economics editor Peter Jay.

“Naked nepotism,” fumed a critic within Prime Minister Callaghan’s own Labour party. “I suppose President Carter’s mother will be sent over here next,” jeered another. And some thought it was all a plot to send London’s current man in Washington, the respected Sir Peter Ramsbotham, into palmy pasture as governor of Bermuda.

Jay himself professes astonishment at the plummy job and insists that it came not through family channels but from Foreign Secretary David Owen. “If I were not absolutely sure that it was Dr. Owen’s idea and his alone, I would have some doubts about whether I could, or indeed should, do the job,” he declares. As the PM cracked, “I somehow do not think that when Mr. Jay proposed to my daughter he had in mind that I would be Prime Minister or that he might be asked to become ambassador.” (The Jays have been wed 16 years.) In any case, since his appointment does not require the consent of Parliament, Jay is anticipated in Washington by summer. And eagerly on this side of the ocean. For despite the uproar, it is widely believed that Peter Jay, at 40, may be uncommonly qualified for his new posting.

The son of Douglas Jay, a Labour MP and former President of the Board of Trade, Peter was trained at Winchester, one of Britain’s most selective and demanding boarding schools. He went on to take a coveted “first” honors in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. After stints in the Royal Navy and at the Treasury, Jay joined the august London Times. Since 1972, he has also hosted a current affairs program on British commercial TV that is long on both erudition and wind. If he has any diplomatic disability, it is likely the arrogance of superior intellect. It is reported that a Times subeditor once was foolish enough to question the meaning of one of Peter’s articles. “That was written for three people,” Jay replied with lofty condescension. “And you’re not one of them.”

Though an innocent at diplomacy, the ambassador-designate has already had the wit to pile praise on President Carter, whom he describes as capable of “heroic leadership.” And both Jay and his wife, Margaret Ann, 36, a BBC correspondent, know the U.S. intimately. They have crisscrossed it often on journalistic assignments, and last year Peter sailed their 47-foot sloop across the Atlantic to Maine.

In the past a prickly critic of his own Labour party, Jay has opposed such touchstones of Callaghan policy as British participation in the Common Market and promotion of the supersonic Concorde. Lately, however, he has broken out of the gloom that once led him to predict the demise of democracy in England by 1980. Though Britain’s recent performance has “not been very good,” he says, “there is a new generation who don’t remember the Empire and have no time for nostalgia. Their hallmark,” he declares, “is a determination to get things right once and for all.”