The Sketch: This most average of foreign secretaries makes Jack Straw seem almost dashing

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The Independent Online

Not for the first time, Mrs Beckett gave us her Geoffrey Boycott impression at the despatch box yesterday. She plays for her average, rather than the well-being of the team. And as the most average member of the team she bears quite a responsibility. Whatever she was bowled, she stood there prodding cautiously, determined to do or say as little as possible while maintaining her position. In the end, she told us nothing we hadn't read in the papers. Is that entirely true? Let's see.

She'd called in the North Korean ambassador. She was having meetings. "They will continue in the hours and days ahead," she said. That wasn't in the papers. I stand corrected. We now know that meetings are to continue not just in the hours but also the days ahead. She didn't mention weeks. As for months? An unknown quantity.

But, for the Paxmen among us, what actually would happen in these meetings? "Proposals are under consideration." Aha! Now we're getting somewhere. Proposals? And what sort of proposals are they? "A complete package of proposals." And a complete package consists of? In general terms, the inventory of a complete package must be characterised by completeness.

William Hague got this out of her by asking whether we were making any proposals of our own? "It is extremely wise," she began, and younger members of the press corps leant forward to learn what they could of wisdom. "It is extremely wise to have a full range of proposals." To sceptics who want to question this, she offered two pieces of evidence. She said a complete package was important so "that people can decide on whether they agree". That was item one. And equally important, a complete package allowed people "also to see the full range". Do you see what she's saying? It's wise to have a full range of proposals so that people can see the proposals' full range.

Malcolm Rifkind suggested that failure to curb North Korea's programme would "give the green light to Iran". Mrs Beckett began: "I would be very reluctant to agree with any proposition that would give the green light to Iran... This [sic] should not be seen as a green light to anyone."

There is a technical term for Margaret Beckett. She is also known as "a safe pair of hands". Jack Straw, sitting beside her, used to be the Foreign Secretary. History will show he was a rather dashing Foreign Secretary. He publicly said it would be "nuts" to bomb Iran. And privately said he was putting this out to "tie the prime minister's hands". Wise or not, it was interesting and brave.

Mrs Beckett concluded her utterance by telling us what the strategy was: "We are trying to encourage North Korea into a process of denuclearisation," she said. So, some work there left to do.

sketch@simoncarr.co.uk

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