Wednesday Book: Left to his own devices
Robin Cook by John Kampfner, Victor Gollancz, pounds 16.99
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Wednesday 30 September 1998
John Kampfner's book, then, is a reminder of the high hopes that were vested in Robin Cook before the election, especially by the libertarian left. It was even speculated by the anonymous Labour MP called "Cassandra" in Tribune that Cook would replace Tony Blair within months of Labour victory. That was always silly, but few would have predicted quite how silly it would seem now.
The puzzle of Cook is how one of the Big Four in opposition - who joined Blair, Brown and Prescott in the "big guns" meeting before the weekly Shadow Cabinet - became so rapidly marginalised in government. One thing that this book puts beyond doubt is the weakness of Cook's position, despite holding one of the great offices of state. Cook was already out in the cold to a surprising extent while in opposition. The account of the days before and after Labour's landslide victory is striking, when Cook was not even able to choose his number two as minister for Europe.
Two weeks before the election, Cook was told, "by Blair's aide Jonathan Powell", that, if Labour won, he could not keep his deputy, Joyce Quin. On the day after the election, Cook spent half an hour with the new Prime Minister, and asked to have Clive Soley or Peter Hain instead. Kampfner comments mildly that these were "unlikely" choices: there was no prospect that Blair would accept either of these low-ranking MPs, whose main qualification was their leftish position. The next day, Cook read that Blair had offered the job to Sir David Simon, chairman of BP, and later he was told that in fact it would be filled by Doug Henderson. The new Foreign Secretary seems to have been passive throughout. He "accepted the decision in good grace" despite thinking that the appointment of Henderson, as an ally of his rival Gordon Brown, was a "genuine threat".
There is a lot of rivalry with Brown in the book, and the impression given is all the more poisonous because of Kampfner's sober and factual style. The picture is of a collection of fragile egos that occasionally try to be nice to one another, but are usually snubbed and retreat into the nursing of grievances. It may be that one of Cook's first mistakes as Foreign Secretary was driven by a desire not to be outdone in propaganda terms by the Chancellor, who was branded "Flash" Gordon within five days of the election for his boldness in making the Bank of England independent. But Brown had been planning his coup for months with the full support of Blair, whereas Cook had nothing in his cupboard apart from the well trailed end of the ban on GCHQ trade unions and the signing of the Social Chapter.
The idea of a Foreign Office "mission statement" came from one of his special advisers. Cook agreed, and it was prepared within 10 days. At its launch on 12 May, Cook proclaimed that Britain would "once again be a force for good in the world... our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension". It was a hostage to fortune, and the ransom was soon demanded. Kampfner's sympathy for his subject does not prevent him quoting at length from a 1978 attack on the Labour Government's sale of arms to the "repressive" Indonesian regime by the New Statesman's defence correspondent, who would 20 years later be a Labour Foreign Secretary approving the sale of arms to the same country.
Kampfner's original interest in writing the book was "the role of the radical left in the Labour Party under Tony Blair", but he ended up writing something much more interesting: the story of a very clever man who has never been quite in the right place or the right time. Cook wanted to be Chancellor, but his Keynesianism - rather than his antipathy to Brown - rules that out. The failure of Cook's shares to rise partly reflects the fact that the radical left does not have much of a role under Tony Blair.
The one issue on which Cook's democratic radicalism has any hope of influencing the Government is that of electoral reform, but Cook - having launched the dialogue with the Liberal Democrats - is now out of the loop on domestic policy. So that hope has been all but snuffed out.
This impressively well researched book paints a picture of a front-rank politician who thought he could rely on the quality of intellectual argument to win through, but who realised, probably too late, that suffering fools was necessary too.
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