The Sketch: Snap-happy Miliband would be no card shark in the negotiating chair

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The Independent Online

After five days of working behind their diplomatic veil, the Foreign Office came out into the open. They do best out of the media gaze, everyone knows, away from the glare of the studio lights, playing their subtle, five-dimensional master-game.

It isn't much of a game because nothing has happened. There's no report to report. No demands, no counter-pleas, no ultimata, no progress. So why isn't it still behind the veil? Why was it brought out now?

Maybe David Miliband didn't want to go through Foreign Office questions with an undeclared hostage drama in the background. So, there is still some purpose to the House of Commons.

It would be embarrassing, having the story broken at the despatch box by the Tories. But still, the only thing to say is that there's nothing to say. Maybe David couldn't get Iran on the phone. Maybe everyone was off. Maybe when things happen out of the public glare they don't happen.

The Commons leapt to its role of scrutiny. Someone asked for an update. Miliband rose to say there was nothing updatable. He said a couple of things, the first of which was obviously untrue. "All sides were looking forward to prompt release." If that's what all sides are doing there wouldn't be a problem.

Secondly, and perhaps more factually, it was all being dealt with "on a purely consular basis".

That's encouraging. Better than having it dealt with by the Foreign Secretary personally. Without wanting to spread alarm among the families, I wouldn't like my son's freedom to be dependent on the Foreign Secretary's negotiating skills.

He's too quick to be right, to win the trick, to smack his hand on the cards and cry, "Snap!" and then beam round the table expecting everyone to be enjoying his cleverness as much as he is. "But Foreign Secretary," his secretary murmurs, "the people on the other side are playing bridge."

He gives us glimpses of this character now and again, and did so yesterday answering a question about some ex-colonial border that wasn't "recognised" as one member put it. No, no, he said, the border is indeed recognised, that wasn't the right term, the border was "disputed". Or, as it might be said, not recognised by those who disputed it.

A small point it sounds, but if you want to wrong-foot David it might be easier done than said. You'd rev him up (something with an anti-Semitic flavour gets him going), and then present him with an easy trick. He'd snap it up and you'd have him some way down the path you'd laid out for him. But then he's young, intelligent and among Labour's likeable politicians – we can't have everything in one package.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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