Parliament: The Sketch: Stuff and nonsense at the Foreign Office dressing-down panto

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the dubious perks of a Foreign Office minister is the ability, now and then, to summon a foreign diplomat for a dressing-down. Peter Hain had done it just this week, he told MPs yesterday, having called in the Pakistani High Commissioner for a few strict words concerning allegations of an illegal trade in landmines. I've often wondered what these occasions are like. Is a kind of pantomime of stern rebuke carried out, with one man pretending to be cross and disapproving while the other stares shamefacedly at the carpet or tries to brazen it out? Or is it all more clubbable than that - "Come in, old chap. Nothing personal, you understand, but we're going to have to make a bit of a fuss about this landmine business. Deep concern ... seek immediate reassurances ... you know the sort of thing. I'd be jolly grateful if you could look chastened as you leave."

Sometimes, of course, no acting will be necessary. When Keith Vaz summoned the Russian representative to convey the Government's concern at the recent threat to bomb the citizens of Grozny unless they left the city within a week, I don't suppose he had to pretend to be disturbed. His guest too will have realised the gravity of the situation, with a vague retaliatory threat already hanging in the air - Robin Cook confirmed yesterday that Western governments are planning a pincer movement on the debilitated Russian treasury if Moscow doesn't soften its hard line. But even in this situation perhaps a certain embarrassment made itself felt, an awkward equivocation about which arguments could be used and which could not.

Tony Benn and Tam Dalyell had both turned up to watch Mr Cook give the government line on events in Chechnya, and as he rose to issue the expected phrases ("wholeheartedly condemn", "alarm and dismay", "utterly unacceptable", etc) their mouths turned downwards until they were twin gargoyles of mordant disapproval. They had not come to add their voices to the clamour of disapproval, they had come to say "I told you so".

Mr Cook had a relatively easy ride at first. Sir Donald Anderson assured him that the whole house would "welcome his robust response", but rather let the cat out of the bag about the frailty of that robustness when he confessed that the West had been "casting around for instruments which will have some effect". B-2 bombers and laser-guided missiles have proved quite effective in the past but clearly they were not to be employed this time. John Maples, anxious not to look as if he was playing party politics with such serious matters, began with a display of furrowed alliance, but couldn't resist ending with a stealthy sabotage operation. How would the Foreign Secretary, he asked, explain the difference between what the Russians were doing in Chechnya and what Milosevic did in Kosovo?

That incursion was easily rebuffed by Mr Cook but there was more hostile action to come. Tam Dalyell, who has the stealth capabilities of a Sherman tank painted Day-Glo pink, finally got his turn to speak.

"Shouldn't we be a little candid with each other...?" he began languorously and a frisson of anticipation ran across the benches. Mr Dalyell's candour is a powerfully caustic substance, the sort of thing that is useful for clearing clogged drains. "Where did the Russians get the idea that high- altitude bombing would keep casualties low?", he asked mockingly, "Where did they get the idea of military attacks on civilian centres?"

Mr Benn nodded approvingly, two Tory MPs bellowed a loud "Hear, hear", and Mr Cook blinked rapidly and winced, as if the fumes from Mr Dalyell's question had got into his eyes.

He would, he told us wearily "wholly repudiate any parallelism" between Nato action in Kosovo and Russian attacks on Grozny. His words had as little effect on Mr Dalyell as they will have on President Yeltsin, possibly even less.