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The Saturday Profile: Labour's falling star

It was, perhaps predictably, Margaret Cook who provided the best analysis of the cause of the problems that have beset the career of her former husband. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of her marriage last summer she identified the extent to which ambition and single-mindedness among politicians distort their view of reality. It had a domestic implication but it also applied to the political life of the man who had only recently become Foreign Secretary.

The really extraordinary thing is that it is only since Robin Cook achieved so much of his lifetime's ambition, only since he reached a position of real political power, only after his appointment to one of the great offices of state that so much seems to have gone so wrong for him. All that ambition and single-mindedness brought him to the Cabinet table and yet, so far, it seems only to have brought public humiliation and political ignominy. It is one of the great surprises of the Blair administration.

There was good news this week at last. The announcement from the Iranian Government that it was prepared officially to disavow the fatwa on Salman Rushdie was obviously a diplomatic coup, for which Cook deserves personal credit. He must hope that it might mark a change in his personal fortune and other changes on the international scene may help his standing as a statesman on the world stage: a new Social Democratic Chancellor in Germany, for example, may well provide a new Anglo-German political axis that could assist the position of the British Foreign Secretary as a player. The time for his political recovery is certainly due.

It all started so well. Only just over a year ago he was being feted on his arrival at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He was "the most radical member" and the cleverest of Tony Blair's Cabinet, a politician with vision and imagination, one of the best parliamentary orators of his generation. And now he was in power and he was going to change things in King Charles Street and in the view of the world as seen from that distinguished address.

Winds of change howled down the corridors. There was a mission statement. An "ethical" foreign policy was announced. Members of staff were invited to join this exciting adventure at a "pro-active mass meeting" - the very terminology was itself a measure of how much things were going to change.

David Puttnam made a video to put them in the mood. In the Foreign Secretary's office the stuffy old symbols of history and tradition were replaced with relevant modern businesslike symbols. Charles James Fox made way for Ernie Bevin. One Foreign Office official welcomed the arrival of some fizz in foreign affairs; Britain had offered competence without fizz for too long, he declared. It was all pronounced to be "a promising start".

Yet the list of disappointments and disasters regularly recited in the newspapers is long, very long: the Queen's trip to India, the Sandline affair, the frustration of his hopes of running for the post of Scotland's first First Minister, even his widowed mother's decision to spend Christmas with her deserted daughter-in-law rather than at Chevening. His few friends, who are greatly outnumbered by his enemies, ascribe this unfortunate course of events to a number of different reasons. There is little dissent, however, from the view that the break-up of his marriage to Margaret and the circumstances in which it took place made an initial impact from which the rest flowed.

"What has been really striking - startling is the word - is that somebody who was so dominant in the House of Commons in Opposition should have slipped as he has," one of his close political chums said sadly yesterday.

But another colleague, who knows him well, suspects that it is his success in Opposition that may have been part of the problem. There is, for a start, the point that throughout his progress onwards and upwards in the Labour Party, Cook has never much bothered with making friends at Westminster, cultivating the press or securing for himself a coterie of loyal political supporters. In fact he did the opposite. His best friend is said to be John McCririck, the television racing commentator, with whom he can indulge his passion for the turf. That is more important to him by far than hanging around bars unnecessarily at Westminster in the hope of improving his image.

"Robin's great strength as an Opposition spokesman was his forensic skills. He almost matched ministers in performance of their briefs. So he appeared like a well-briefed minister in Opposition and now he appears the same in Government. But people's expectations of him were far higher. If Cook does well that's what you expect of him - and if he does not do as well as had been expected then there's some ill-disguised schadenfreude," his colleague explained. "The trouble is that he's such an arrogant sod that few people are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt."

Cook is genuinely puzzled at why he is considered arrogant or vain. Only a few months ago when discussing the vagaries of political fortune with Neil Kinnock - who understands the problem well - he is said to have shaken his head in bewilderment and said that he could not see why others thought him pompous.

His biographer, the BBC political correspondent John Kampfner, whose book Robin Cook has just been published ,believes that it is possibly because he is actually so shy that he gives a misleading impression. He has a very difficult manner, of which he is very aware, Kampfner says, and he knows that the first impression that he gives is not favourable.

This has obviously helped produce the image of a rather prickly personality. But Cook also is clearly rather hurt by endless references to his appearance. He has a sense of humour in private, but it doesn't extend to jokes about himself. He would be deeply hurt to hear the gales of laughter that one Tory MP always gets when he tells the joke about Snow White, Tom Thumb and Quasimodo trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records. They are seeking certification as the most beautiful, smallest and ugliest. Quasimodo fails to get into the book and comes out of the office saying: "Who's this chap Robin Cook?"

John Kampfner agrees that part of Cook's problem has been the range of enemies that he had managed to amass before taking office as Foreign Secretary. There were those in the Labour Party - most notably, of course, his long-standing rivalry with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, but there are plenty of others. There were those in the Tory Party whom he had chewed up and spat out when they were Ministers and there were officials, in the security services in particular, who resented his political stance. To that list he very quickly added civil servants in the FCO.

One story that is told relates how the former Permanent Secretary, Sir John Coles, asked the Foreign Secretary, after representations from the Secretary of State's Private Office, if he would please indicate by some means which papers in his red boxes he had read. His staff did not know unless he ticked a paper, Sir John explained. Cook is said to have replied: "If you think I'm one of those plodders like Hurd who reads everything." It was an ill-judged comment. His predecessor, Douglas Hurd, was a former Foreign Office official; he was the diplomats' dream.

The public relations disaster that accompanied his private life has seemed to follow him into his political life. Sometimes he attracted justifiable headlines - over the matter of replacing his former secretary, for example, with his then mistress, Gaynor Regan, now the second Mrs Cook - but one of his colleagues believes it was because he had become gaffe-prone. "Once you get a tag in the media for being accident-prone, then everything is interpreted that way," the minister says.

A friend finds this all the more remarkable because of the manner in which Cook has kept his place at the forefront of Tony Blair's "new" Labour Party, while not himself being a Blairite. "He has displayed for years a deftness of touch and a nimbleness around the thickets at the heart of leading Labour policy. He has kept his credibility on the Left. But now everything has been extremely badly handled," the friend says.

His position has not been helped by his enemies at the Cabinet table either. Cook believes he has been victimised to some extent, that he has been briefed against by the spinners and, in some instances, by their masters - particularly, of course, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown.

"He amassed quite a wide array of rivals and enemies, and that combination was quite potent," Kampfner says. "But they could only attack him when things started to go wrong for him. As soon as they did start going wrong he was in trouble. His problem in Government has been that he hasn't been able to do anything. He can't get anything through and it's a big problem: everything is basically being scuppered by other people."

It is an open secret that Gordon Brown was insistent that Cook should not be given an economic post after the election and that it has been increasingly difficult for the Foreign Secretary to put any of his high- minded policies into practice: he has been strapped for cash by the Treasury and his ethics have been consistently undermined by Number 10.

The difficulties of the ethical foreign policy are in some ways exemplary. Cook is a man of great political principle, but introducing ethics into selling arms to foreign states was always going to be tricky to put into practice. "An ethical foreign policy is a contradiction in terms," a distinguished MP opined. "You can have a principled foreign policy, but that's different."

So what next for this man who has many admirers, but few friends? He has been advised to keep his head down for at least the next year. He survived the summer Cabinet reshuffle - although there had been rumours that he might be sacked - and his friends hope that if he avoids further untoward publicity that he might restore his reputation and his credibility.

"His career is stalled at the moment," a Scottish MP says. "And what happens next will depend on what happens to other people." He meant Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Cook has given up wanting to be Prime Minister, ruefully aware that it won't happen. He has even given up wanting to be Scotland's Prime Minister. But he still wants to be Chancellor. Whether his single-minded ambition will be enough ever to get him there is not yet at all clear.

Life Story

Full name: Robert Finlayson Cook

Origins: Born 28 February, 1946, at Bellshill, Lanarkshire. Only child. Father a teacher, from a working-class background, mother came from a landowning family.

Vital statistics. Aged 52. Twice married: Margaret Whitmore, medical consultant, with two sons, 1969-97; Gaynor Regan, his appointments secretary, 1998.

Education: Aberdeen Grammar, Edinburgh High and Edinburgh University (2:1 in English).

Parliamentary career: MP for Edinburgh Central, 1974-83; MP for Livingston since 1983.

Passions: "The two most exciting sights and noises I know are these: first, a large field coming into a steeplechase fence; the other is the clang of the tin-ballot boxes as they hit the floor on election night."

His critics say: "We've been waiting for Robin for 15 years. But he's retreated from just about everything he stood for." (a Labour MP).

His supporters say: "Cook has come to be seen by Labour members as the custodian of the party's conscience." (Martin Kettle).

Cook on himself: "Never, since I started out at primary school, have I ever thought I looked like Clint Eastwood."