The Sketch: Grocer Mullin sells same old chestnuts

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The Independent Online

They say that every man at 50 has the looks he deserves. Chris Mullin of the Foreign Office has done much better than his looks would warrant.

I was trying to write some film dialogue he might be involved in. Looking at his unlikely 1950s head, the only plausible exchange was: "Good morning, Mr Mullin, Two ounces of Caerphilly, if you please." To which he'd reply: "I'm afraid we haven't got any cheese, madam." "What? No cheese, Mr Mullin?"

"No madam. The delivery boy fell off his bike and broke his arm. We've got some very nice dripping just in, though, shall I wrap it up for you?"

What you can't imagine anyone saying to him is: "Precisely what help can Britain give Uganda to solve her internal security problems - the recent massacres, the 20,000 children that have been abducted and trained as killers."

You couldn't cast Mr Mullin in a film that allowed him to say anything significant about that. What he actually said was: "Our high commissioner in Kampala is having regular meetings. And we have sponsored a radio station." Then he said that we had offered to help with negotiations. Actually, his answer, now we look at it, was entirely consonant with his grocerly appearance.

Mr Mullin often concludes his remarks with a sentiment summarised as: "Well, it's all very difficult, you know." In this instance: "It's very difficult to negotiate with unspeakable terrorists with no known political demands."

Africa is the latest eye-catching initiative with which the Prime Minister has personally associated himself. He has personally associated Mr Mullin with it too. This is a mistake. Mr Mullin's frontbench responsibility is for Africa. As he is responsible for Africa he should resign.

News in brief: George Foulkes disgraced himself again with questions so servile they would have choked Hazel Blears in her heyday. Denis MacShane's imitation of lordliness becomes more richly comic every month. Sir Peter Tapsell asked whether any British leader had been so uninformed about a selected enemy since Lord Chelmsford invaded Zululand? This attracted vulgar laughter.

Boris Johnson characterised the Government's refusal to prosecute Clare Short's breach of the Official Secrets Act as "spineless" and "guilt-ridden". Jack Straw favoured the globular backbencher with one of his most lizardly smiles and said, neatly, that the decision to prosecute was never taken by ministers.

And a final judgement from Mr Mullin - on Cameroon: "There is considerable scope for improving democratic government in that country." No! Really? But isn't it all very difficult?

In his Ten Minute Rule Bill, Alex Salmond proposed a new approach to the Common Fisheries Policy (make your own jokes out of these raw materials). He wanted to withdraw from it altogether. I'm not sure it's legal under EU law to say something like that. We may not see Mr Salmond again.

And then it was pensions. There was no time to listen to the debate. I had to go and earn some money for my retirement, should I ever be able to afford to retire. If the Government doesn't come up with something I shall be moving in with the Pensions Minister Andrew Smith. I mean it.