Sketch: Mein host Miliband, and other horrors

Watching diplomats at work is much harder than it sounds.

By Alex Stevenson

Perhaps it is the British obsession with awkwardness that makes it so tough. Perhaps it is the limited social abilities of those involved. Either way, gazing on as the fate of nations is decided through small-talk is one of the worst spectator sports around.

It began early on with our foreign secretary, David Miliband, welcoming delegates to Lancaster House. Miliband in welcoming mode is a disturbing sight. He stood nervously on the steps, looking for all the world (literally) like a jittery wedding reception manager at a particularly important event. He had a lengthy chat with Hillary Clinton – too lengthy, it turned out, as she moved things on to force her way inside.

Inside Lancaster House, that is. This delightful 19th century residence is helpfully described in the information notes for journalists supplied by the media as “the only unaltered survivor of a group of extravagant town houses” which were the focus of social and political life a long time ago. Ken Clarke may have found his architectural equivalent.

By 09:30, already behind schedule, the conference was ready to get underway with the official delegation photograph. Hardy negotiators spend much of their lives waiting around on these occasions and, as usual, were kept in suspense by Gordon Brown and Hamid Karzai. For three intense seconds the shutters snapped away. “What a nice picture,” a voice was heard to say. This was followed by raucous laughter. An absurd idea, clearly, and demonstrated to be thus on close inspection. Brown looked like a zombie. Miliband and Clinton looked like squeaky-clean seven-year-olds. Ban Ki-moon oozed nonchalance. He is the diplomatic equivalent of The Fonz.

If the photograph was bad enough, what followed was much worse. International diplomacy is, it seems, little more than a succession of polite faces – handshakes, kissing cheeks, delighted expressions – punctuated by conversations in which the main aim is to look as serious as possible.

Clinton, after mastering small talk in the White House training school for first ladies, was in demand. Various potentates sidled up to her unsubtly. A rather sleazy atmosphere seemed to surround the bright-eyed secretary of state. “I’ve got a lot of dates,” she was heard to say apologetically at one stage. We assume she was talking about calendars.

Not everyone was talking. Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth gazed on into the middle distance. Perhaps he was seeking out bristly friends to bond over a ‘my moustache’s bigger than yours’ discussion.

Finally, after more waiting for Brown and Karzai to turn up, the conference got underway. The leaders exchanged pleasantries. “We will stand united with you,” Brown told Karzai, who nodded firmly and repeatedly that this was a good thing. He was effusive in reply, telling the prime minister: “My very special thanks to the most honourable Gordon Brown.” The PM nodded dolefully, looking unimpressed.

A shame, then, he was to miss much of David Miliband’s excellent banter. “While we may look very nice we will be very strict about time limits,” he warned speakers cheekily.

Silence greeted this remark, but there was no time for a crisis of confidence from the chairman. A crisis appeared to be developing. “I’ve just received a request to speak!” Miliband said excitedly. “Uh – it’s been unrequested.”

Many of those present will have English as their second language. This will not prevent them detecting that “unrequested” is, most definitely, not a word.

These conferences are, it is clear, an ordeal for all concerned. But there is one positive to chalk up: the food.

As I write delegates are tucking into a delicious ballotine of English goats’ cheese with a fennel and raisin toast. Or maybe they will have reached the main course, pan-fried sea bass, or skipped straight ahead to Bakewell tart with a plum compote.

Let us hope, for his sake, that Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki is not reading this. He may not have factored the cuisine into his decision to snub the conference.

The media have been subjected to endless footage of diplomatic chit-chat. At least we have been spared shots of the same diplomats stuffing their faces.

We must be grateful for small blessings.