Royal visits are diplomatic incidents waiting to happen

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FEW EVENTS anywhere on Earth are more minutely choreographed than a foreign visit by Her Majesty the Queen. But as the latest kerfuffle over Zimbabwe's President and the gay protesters shows, even the best- laid plans of Buckingham Palace and the Foreign Office can go awry.

The benefits and the pitfalls of such trips are illustrated by the five official and state visits she has made since Labour took power in 1997. In office for barely a month, the Blair Government had little to do with the first of them, to Canada in June 1997, a trip remarkable for a minor tizz, months later, about Her Majesty's reputed decision to change her hair stylist.

By contrast, the visit four months later to India and Pakistan, to mark 50 years of independence, was a nightmare. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, detonated a massive dispute with India with a well-meaning and seemingly innocuous remark that Britain was ready to mediate, if requested, in the Kashmir dispute.

In Delhi, however, those words - uttered, worse still, in Pakistan - were simply proof that the old colonial master had not lost his taste for imperial meddling. The Foreign Office squirmed. The Queen, as always, suffered in silence.

Since then, it has been smoother going. The royal visit to Brunei in September 1998 went off without a hitch, while this April's trip to Korea was a huge success. So too, despite her forthright remarks about democracy in the Accra parliament, was her stay in Ghana this week. Now the furore in Zimbabwe and an alleged royal apology for last week's confrontation between President Robert Mugabe and gay protesters outside his London hotel.

The Foreign Office denies claims in Harare that an apology was issued by the Foreign Office minister Peter Hain on behalf of the Queen, but this weekend all three parties to the dispute will come face-to-face at the Commonwealth summit in Durban.

What with a country under fire for its human rights abuses, a British minister born in Nairobi and famous for not mincing his words on Africa and a monarch who sees the Commonwealth as something of a personal responsibility, the encounter will test to the hilt the skills of those Palace and Foreign Office choreographers.

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