Matthew Norman: David Miliband and his disappearing act

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The Independent Online

What a sadness that King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and David Miliband, Crown Prince of Labour, never managed to meet up in London this week. They have so much in common... and not just those "shared values" between our kingdoms about which Mr Miliband's last-minute Foreign Office substitute Kim Howells so movingly wittered.

Take family life. Abdullah worked in government with his late half-brother King Fahd, just like David does now with his brother Ed, the minister for schools and children, so there's a useful little ice-breaker to be going on with. And then, speaking of children, there is the matter of sons. Both tend towards the secretive when discussing their offspring, but it's believed His Majesty has at least 25 children (by an estimated 30 wives), of whom logic suggests that a dozen, give or take a few, will be male.

Our Foreign Secretary now has two boys of his own, newly born Jacob having joined three-year-old Isaac this very week. It was of course to attend the birth of his second adoptive son in the United States that Mr Miliband absented himself, at the shortest of notice, from his Abdullah-welcoming responsibilities, although in the event he and his musician wife Louise (his only spouse; alas not every value can be shared to the full) apparently were a few hours late.

Very little has been written about the sudden paternity leave that kept Mr Miliband from his hostly duties, and I'm not sure why. Maybe the inherent irony - that what spared Mr Miliband from meeting this kingly paradigm of female repression was the ultimate expression of new manhood – is too clumpingly obvious for more sophisticated columnists.

More likely perhaps, there is a fear of appearing to intrude. So distressed were the Milibands in 2004 by suggestions that Isaac's adoption was fast-tracked due to his dad's ministerial status (entirely false; it was quick because Mrs M is a US citizen) that they now refuse to reveal so much as Jacob's birth weight. If people wish to respect their desire for privacy, all well and good.

And yet, somewhere here lie a few questions that may deserve to be raised. As Foreign Secretary, for instance, was it right for Mr Miliband to place his private life ahead of his public role in such a high-profile visitation? Would he have delayed the transatlantic trip by just a couple of days had the guest been the head of a less translucently repugnant regime than Saudi Arabia's? Was he, in other words, using Jacob's arrival as an excuse to avoid greasing the wheels of arms trading of a kind he might once, in the mythic New Labour era of "ethical foreign policy", have openly described as stomach-turningly hypocritical?

If so, Mr Miliband sets himself a challenging precedent. Every time one of the world's unlovelier tyrants pops along, he will have to arrange another adoption. Admittedly this is easier in the US, where babies can be picked up by citizens almost as easily as an automatic rifle from WalMart. Even so, should Assad of Syria reprise his 2002 jaunt, Mr Miliband will need to return to the States to add Abraham (I just love his commitment to the tripartite Jewish patriarchy; those shared values with the Saudis yet again!) to Isaac and Jacob.

Soon enough he'll be giving the Jolie-Pitts a run for their money. A torrent of state visits from other Middle Eastern beauties in search of armaments with which to encourage their populace's obedience, and the all-comers' record of Mia Farrow herself could be threatened.

Such a refreshingly bright, likeable and modest chap is David Miliband, and so clearly a heart-in-the-right-place kinda guy, that I feel slightly guilty about yielding to such flippancy. Only slightly, though, because however admirable his paternal instincts, and however laudable his distaste for the King (if that did play a part in his absence), he is still the bleedin' Foreign Secretary and as such expected to put his public life first. Bonding with a new baby is an important and delicious parental experience, as Abdullah, Sultan of the Wet Wipes, would be the first to agree.

Yet the process is hardly compromised by missing the first two days of a child's life. As a Cabinet Minister, Mr Miliband has played a collective part in sending men into action, causing them to miss the first two months, and much more, of their babies's lives. None of them missed a battle because of paternity leave.

Alright, an FO spokesman might counter, a) this isn't war, and b) as a senior member of a government stoutly committed to improving paternity rights as part of a general campaign for gender equality, Mr Miliband is honour bound to lead from the front. But nominally this is a war, and indeed the greatest war of all: the war against terrruhh, and for the survival of such beloved Anglo-Saudi shared values as democ..., erm, freedom of sp, uhh... well, you get the picture.

As for b), if that's the case, what is the government doing by lavishly welcoming this global cheerleader for brutal gender inequality? They shouldn't try to play it both ways. They can't have their babycakes and eat them.

Whatever his private joy this week, Mr Miliband's absence did produce one public delight, and that was the starring role for his aforementioned FO colleague Kim Howells. Mr Howells's last starring role was in a curious 1970 "documentary" – an X-rated sex instruction movie, to be honest, largely concerning the female orgasm; you just can't get away from those shared values, can you? – called The Body.

Narrated by Vanessa Redgrave, it features songs by members of Pink Floyd including such timeless family favourites as "Lick Your Partners", "Embryonic Womb Walk" and "More Than Seven Dwarves In Penis-Land". At 83 years old, King Abdullah's personal favourite would probably be "Old Folks Ascension", and it is a source of regret that he and the Queen never danced to this together, after the style of Gabby Logan and partner, at that sumptuous state banquet.

It is also a sadness, to repeat myself, that Mr Miliband missed the chance to chat about family life with a fecund Saudi monarch whose thoughts about colic, croup and helping the missus (or missuses; or even, for you Latinists, missi) by taking turns with the night feeds would have been so instructive. So when Abdullah or his successor next graces us with a visit, the Foreign Secretary must clear the decks of any neo-natal engagements.

One day he will play a central role, possibly as Prime Minister, in sending abroad hundreds of troops who will leave behind unborn babies on whom, crucial bonding process or not, they won't set eyes for a very long time. However understandable Mr Miliband's private self-indulgence, and however unpalatable the particular public duty, he set a dodgy example this week by promoting the former over the latter.