Anne Penketh: Do diplomats think he's up to the job?

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The Independent Online

The diplomatic crises in Kenya, Pakistan and Zimbabwe were in full swing. The Foreign Secretary, some nine months into the job, was in corresponding finger-wagging mode. So I asked a senior foreign diplomat at a breakfast one morning: how's David Miliband doing? "I'd give him top marks for enthusiasm," the diplomat replied drily. It was not the first patronising comment I had heard in the cruel and cynical world of international diplomacy. One of Mr Miliband's own subordinates, Lord Malloch Brown, had told a newspaper following his appointment as minister for Africa, Asia and the UN that he would be the "wise eminence behind the young Foreign Secretary".

Although Mr Miliband naturally has his supporters, he still has to overcome criticism of his lack of experience. He has clearly had a sharp learning curve since being appointed in June last year. A couple of months later, he was doing the rounds at a reception after the unveiling of the Nelson Mandela statue outside Downing Street, and, as he chatted to diplomats, he mentioned that Mozambique had just joined the Commonwealth, something the former Portuguese colony, in fact, did in 1995. "It was a small thing but for the Foreign Secretary of Britain to say that, it clouded my view of him," one diplomat recalled yesterday.

A former African diplomat commented that, unlike his predecessors, the Foreign Secretary lacked "gravitas and star quality".

British foreign policy successes have proved elusive over the past year. Pakistan's opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, backed to the hilt by Britain, was assassinated on her return home, while the Government was forced to deny it had been humiliated by Russian and Chinese vetoes on a Zimbabwe sanctions resolution earlier this month. Relations with Russia remain in the deep freeze after the Litvinenko affair. The Government has faced criticism at home for adopting a more public stand on Zimbabwe than under Tony Blair and for refusing to let the Litvinenko affair drop quietly. And let's not forget Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mr Miliband, constrained by the Prime Minister's own cautious views – according to his aides – has failed to place Britain at the heart of Europe. A German analyst told me last week as the US presidential candidate Barack Obama addressed 200,000 people in Berlin, that after the "hyperpresence" of British foreign policy under Tony Blair, Britain now had "almost a non-presence."

Mr Miliband, 43, is a minister in the Blair mould. When he briefs reporters, he takes off his jacket and sits with his audience.Although he might be short on experience, he has never neglected domestic politics. Not long after his Bruges address outlining the Government's vision for Europe, he was delivering a speech to the Fabian society. The speech last January was entitled "Change the world." Sound familiar? Maybe Mr Miliband is modelling himself on another candidate campaigning for "change we can believe in".

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