He is the very model of a modern British peer—elegant, self-assured, witty and the toast of his club, the Carlton. His perfectly cut suits have led one American admirer to dub him "the best-dressed man in England." Yet as Margaret Thatcher's aggressive foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, 60, has proved unmistakably that he has steel as well as style in pursuit of a diplomatic breakthrough that eluded both Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance: peace and a permanent government for the rebel British colony of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, the tinderbox of Africa.

Given the nation's fractious and violent history, it is a most audacious goal—and one that puts his political mettle to maximum test. It was Carrington who convinced Thatcher to withhold recognition from the precarious new government of black Prime Minister Abel Muzorewa—and to use Britain's leverage to bring all the competing factions together for the first time to work out a new formula for a peaceful transition to black-majority rule. "Under Kissinger, the initiative in Rhodesia was Anglo-American," says one U.S. diplomat. "Now it's Anglo. Any progress in Rhodesia should be credited to Carrington."

For the past six weeks, all parties, including former Prime Minister Ian Smith and the Patriotic Front guerrilla leaders Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, sat at the same table at London's Lancaster House under the moderating influence of Carrington to end Zimbabwe-Rhodesia's 14 years of civil strife. To be sure, Smith finally bolted, threatening to muster a white veto of the new constitution Carrington had drafted, which would end white control of the government and armed forces. More seriously, the Patriotic Front suddenly balked at the document last week, putting Carrington's entire initiative in jeopardy. Yet, as one frustrated aide of Nkomo said: "If these talks fail, it won't be Carrington's fault." Keeping them going required a feat of virtuoso diplomacy.

The son of a politician, Lord Carrington was born Peter Alexander Rupert Carington—because of heraldic error two centuries ago, his name and his title are spelled differently—and he was weaned on equal parts Eton, Sandhurst (Britain's West Point) and noblesse oblige. A genuine World War II hero, he won the military cross (Britain's second-highest combat decoration) as an officer in the Netherlands with the Grenadier Guards at 19, shortly after he inherited the title. "I have never believed that personal ambition is something that should motivate your action," says Carrington, who in 1964 refused to resign his family's seat in the House of Lords in order to be eligible to become prime minister, saying, "I can imagine no more awful job." (As a lord, he is still forbidden to address the House of Commons; his deputy stands up for him in Question Period.)

"I am a product of privilege," Carrington admits frankly. He lives nobly, with a townhouse in the Knightsbridge section of London and a manor house with formal gardens on 900 acres, most of it a working farm, in Buckinghamshire. His avocations are contemplative: gardening with his wife, whom he met at an Eton-Harrow cricket match, and listening to classical music. "My tastes are rather vulgar," he apologizes, "Mozart, Verdi, run-of-the-mill stuff." Yet Carrington entered politics, he says, out of concern for the misery of the poor during the Depression. "It brought a determination that this sort of thing must not happen again," he says.

The sixth Baron Carrington takes none of his titles seriously, and his substantial wit is an asset to any colleague of Margaret Thatcher, who is notably lacking in it. But Carrington contends that such tags as "Attila the Hen" and "the Iron Maiden" are "in a sense complimentary to her. You could never have a good prime minister who is not tough and resolute." Their political marriage appears happy, though his appointment was intended at first mainly to appease the more moderate followers of her Tory predecessor Edward Heath, in whose cabinet Carrington served as defense minister. Besides taking the lead on Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and the horrendous problems of Ireland, Carrington has enlisted Thatcher's support in a mission he considers "far more important": to cement Britain's ties with Europe and to unify Europe as a political and economic force rivaling even the superpowers. The PM's country residence, Chequers, is only four miles from Carrington's("Too bloody close," whispers an aide protective of the foreign secretary's off-time), and weekend consultations are frequent. But Carrington says he and Mrs. Thatcher are not personally close. "We get along very well—on foreign affairs," he says, with classic British candor. "I don't think Mrs. Thatcher has any close friends."

Those who know him say Carrington was uniquely prepared to carry her banner—particularly into Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. "He has that great sense of independence that comes from birth and wealth," explains one seasoned British observer. "He doesn't have to care what other people say or think." Carrington's intimates say that he also wants to crown his career of near-greatness with a historic accomplishment. Yet on the eve of a reckoning for the talks at Lancaster House, his sense of the moment was couched in a characteristically wry understatement. "I have a lovely job and I enjoy it," he said. "So far."