The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has been forced to backtrack after dropping a diplomatic clanger, notably upsetting Egypt, Nigeria and Germany, by endorsing four other countries as future permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The Foreign Office was inundated with calls demanding clarification, according to diplomats, after Mr Miliband identified South Africa, Japan, Brazil and India as the four states with a "very clear" claim to permanent membership.
Security Council enlargement is the most divisive issue on the agenda of the 192-member general assembly, where big regional powers are at each others' throats to gain a seat at the world's top diplomatic table.
Mr Miliband's remarks, during a interview on the BBC's Newsnight on Tuesday, marked a clear departure from policy under Tony Blair, who had backed Germany for a permanent seat and refrained from singling out a favourite African contender. Until now, Britain had been content to say that it would endorse whatever candidate Africa put forward and had not chosen between South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt. The African group at the UN, which has failed to unite behind a single candidate, is calling for the continent to have two permanent seats with veto power in an enlarged security council.
In his maiden speech to the UN General Assembly last night, Mr Miliband made no reference to South Africa, and reinstated the British endorsement of Germany as he addressed the issue of Security Council reform. "We support the permanent membership of Germany, Japan, India and Brazil and permanent representation from Africa," he said.
"He screwed up," said a South African diplomat. "He's not going to say it again."
"Let's say it was not a smart move," an Egyptian diplomat commented.
It seems that Mr Miliband may not have been aware of the sensitive nature of the debate when he made his televised remarks. "He didn't mean to rub their faces in it," said the diplomat from South Africa, referring to Egypt and Nigeria.
The Foreign Office earlier sought to mollify Germany by getting back on message with a statement which said: "The UK supports Security Council seats for the so-called G4 of Japan, Germany, Brazil and India, and for Africa."
The Group of Four has long campaigned for permanent membership and the four states back each other's bids as permanent members on the council which currently has five with veto power, including Britain, and 10 others elected to two-year terms according to geographical rotation.
In the interview on Tuesday, Mr Miliband also scotched any suggestion that Britain would give up its seat on the Security Council in favour of an EU seat, an idea advocated by Lord Malloch Brown in Brussels last October, before the Prime Minister Gordon Brown invited him to join the Foreign Office.
"It's all so unnecessary. Nothing's going to happen," a former UN diplomat said. "It's like a poker game of 192 people, with everyone looking at the other."
The negotiations on enlarging the Security Council have been going on for more than a decade so far with no solution in sight. The decision rests with the entire membership of the General Assembly, which has failed to agree on the exact number of additional seats and on veto power for new permanent members. Mr Miliband said last night that Britain was "not wedded to a single model" of reform. "Achieving effective change is what matters."Reuse content