Blair spins royal tour into success

The accident-prone royal tour of India took a further turn for the worse yesterday after Tony Blair urged colleagues to tell the "success stories of the visit". Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on a storm in an Indian tea-cup.

The Prime Minister went out of his way to praise Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, during yesterday's Cabinet, for doing an excellent job during his visit, with the Queen, to the Indian subcontinent.

"The Prime Minister said that what was required now was a major effort of communication to explain more widely the thus-far unreported success stories of the visit," a spokesman said.

Mr Cook promptly gave a series of interviews in which he said he had given no public statements on the delicate issue of Kashmir, and the cancellation of a toast due to have been given by the Queen in Madras yesterday was a "storm in a toast-cup".

But the media minefield was then abundantly illustrated with a report that Sir Robert Fellowes, the Queen's private secretary, had said in Madras: "The Queen is here on the advice of ministers in Britain. She does not go out on a limb."

The inference was promptly drawn that Sir Robert was passing the buck - and the blame - on to the Foreign Office, and that if the Queen was out on a limb, that was the fault of Mr Cook and his officials.

The Foreign Office was as baffled by that as it was by the whole affair, particularly as Mr Cook and Sir Robert had spoken an hour earlier on the telephone.

A senior Foreign Office source said the warmth of the welcome for the Queen had been immense; trade orders had reflected the goodwill engendered by the visit, and the relationship between the two governments had never been stronger. Mr Cook said Inder Kumar Gujral, India's Prime Minister, had told the Queen political and economic relations have never been in better shape. "In a statement which he issued after a meeting with myself," Mr Cook added, "he described it as a friendly and a viable meeting. Our diplomatic ties are very strong, as indeed are our trade ties."

Prince Philip, meanwhile, in a speech given aboard the Royal Navy frigate HMS Westminster docked in Bombay, asked businessmen of the two countries to do something that critics said were missing between the diplomats. "Though technology has transformed the world beyond recognition, there is still no substitute for personal interaction," he said. "It is sometimes surprising how many doors can be opened."

A senior Foreign Office source said the media had got the entire affair "out of focus" and had allowed "a molehill to obscure the mountain" of success. The source added that there was more trade and investment between the two countries than at any time in history, including the time of the Empire.

Mr Gujral will have an opportunity to put his own version when he visits Britain next week for a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

As for the source of the perceived diplomatic difficulties, Sir David Gore-Booth, British High Commissioner in India, said: "The Indian press is almost as licentious as our own...

"I find some of the reaction more invented than real. The Indian press, like the British press, is always on the lookout for gaffes and bloopers." Sir David also denied a report in an Indian newspaper that Mr Cook had a blazing row with Mr Gujral.

A Palace official told reporters in Madras that any problems on the visit had been "flea bites" and "nit-picking".

However, Michael Howard, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said last night: "Never has a Foreign Secretary caused so much offence to so many people in such a short space of time."

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