A few tips if we take Cook's tour

A reliable guide on the racecourse and pragmatic over Europe, the shadow Foreign Secretary is renowned for always doing his homework, says Donald Macintyre
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The Independent Online
John McCririck is on the stage of the night club at Livingston football club's stadium outside Edinburgh, smoking a torpedo-size cigar and doing his old friend Robin Cook proud: "I don't know how you do it Robin. It sickens me to my gut. I'm jealous. Just how do you do it?" This is high praise. Racing's most famous television personality isn't talking about Cook's parliamentary skills, or his dissection of the Scott report, or his ability to remain his own man in a party increasingly famous for its internal discipline. He's talking about Cook's talents as a racing tipster, on display each Saturday in Glasgow's Herald.

As one of the country's most unlikely celebrity converts to Labour, McCririck has come to the shadow Foreign Secretary's constituency to lend him his support. An old Harrovian of pronounced right- wing views, McCririck has been converted entirely by the affection he has for his fellow racing fanatic. This is odd, since Cook is unmistakably to the left of Tony Blair. McCririck explains over dinner, before the two men appear on a panel to discuss the following day's Scottish Grand National, that he has been particularly cheered by how "you ruled out a single currency in the next parliament". Never mind that Cook didn't quite do that.

At one point, even Cook looks a trifle anxious as McCririck suddenly risks the wrath of some members of his young audience by launching an extravagent denunciation of the Scottish National Party, the main challenger to Labour in Cook's Livingston constituency. "What party with the word 'national' in it has ever done anything for anyone? Look at them: the British National Party, the National Front, the National Socialists ..." "What about the African National Congress?" asks a quick-witted young man. "The jury's still out on them," McCririck shouts back, unfazed.

The following day he will point out, in an interview with Cook on Channel Four's racing programme, that Cook's Grand National tip, Sister Stephanie, proved a lemon. She was 4-1 favourite but unseated her jockey early in the race, losing The Independent pounds 10 in the process. But Cook's other tips came home: Sparky Gayle in the 2.55 at Ayr, and in the 3.25 - how could he not have punted it? - Shadow Leader?

So we now know his interest in horses is taken seriously by the professionals. It started 15 years ago when he, his wife and his two children, surrounded by equestrians at their favourite holiday spot in the New Forest, decided that if you can't beat them, join them. You're as likely to see a picture of Cook on horseback in Scottish Farmer as his mugshot in Tribune.

And he hopes to keep his racing column after the election.

In Manchester on Friday, having completed a taxing TV interview on Labour's European policy, and with a plane to catch, he sat down with his form guide in a BBC office for 20 minutes while Gary Titley, the local MEP, obligingly read out the Ayr runners from Ceefax, lest Cook should commit the error, unthinkable in Livingston, of referring to a horse that wasn't running.

Typical. Cook never neglects his homework. It is one reason he rarely makes gaffes. (In a tribute to one he did make - predicting that Labour would win big in breach of the "no complacency" edict - he is now given to announcing himself wickedly on the telephone to his old sparring partner thus: "Hello Mandelson, Landslide here.") He admits he is a bit of a swot, and can't resist mildly upbraiding a leading member of the Prestwich Jewish community for using an "oxymoron".

Cook clearly enjoys the rich picture of Britain a well-organised election tour gives you. At a motorway cones factory in marginal Bury, he is delighted to find that 80 per cent of cones on the German Autobahn are made here. Discovering that the Department of Trade had been forced to intervene to force the Germans to stop blocking imports of the cones, he said: "You see. That shows why a veto can be against British interests." If the Germans could not be overruled by majority voting to enforce the single market, the exports wouldn't even happen. Within minutes he is lucidly explaining all this in an interview with the Bury Times.

So how Euro-sceptic is the Shadow Cabinet's leading Euro-sceptic? His reservations - almost entirely on economic grounds - about the single currency, and its potentially deflationary implications, are deep and continuing. But on the European Union generally, the picture is a little more complicated. On the one hand, Cook seems baffled that anyone should think that, with his pugilistic political reputation, he should be a pushover among his fellow foreign ministers. On the other, he is a pragmatist about getting the best out of Europe. Being Scottish may help: Scots can't, by definition, be little Englanders. He has restrained some of his more election-blinded colleagues from going even further down the Tory Europhobic road.

There is one further point. Last summer Cook pointed out at Chatham House that eight of the 15 EU states had governments led by sister social democratic parties. Far from joining Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl in a menage a trois, a Labour government might prefer to put itself, as the EU's third big power, at the head of countries anxious to curb the dominance of the Franco-German axis. At the time that seemed a heresy. More recently Blair has been suggesting that his government might after all be an effective counterweight to Bonn. There is certainly no doubt that Blair consults him.

But abroad is for later. This is an election, and Cook is clearly a believer in the great Irish-American Tip O'Neill's famous dictum that "all politics is local". Given that he has a majority of 8,448, he takes remarkably good care of his constituency. This allegedly unclubbable man is gregariously at home here in a way he clearly isn't in the Commons tea room. In Broxburn - a ward which used to be in the old West Lothian constituency, represented by Tam Dalyell - Cook tells a story of which Tip O'Neill would have approved. One day the chairman of the Broxburn branch came down to Westminster for the first time and Dalyell introduced him to the then elderly Manny Shinwell, who had held the seat in the early 1930s. Instead of reminiscing aimably with the local man, Shinwell rounded on him irascibly for his loss of the seat. "It was the Broxburn boxes which let me down in '35," the old man complained. "If Broxburn had voted for me, I would have been the MP. And if I'd been the MP, I would have become leader of the party instead of Attlee."

Is working-class support holding up in the Scottish heartland? One Labour councillor, out of Cook's earshot, says some people do say on the doorstep: "We'll vote for Robin Cook right enough but ..." But what? That they're not so keen on Blair? "I didn't say that, you did," he replies. Cook himself dismisses the idea that traditional Labour supporters will defect to the SNP because the party is too right wing. They want the Tories out too much. Livingston provides a vivid sense of the two elections taking place: the Westminster, Europe-obsessed campaign, and the bread-and-butter one which is being waged on the doorsteps. Cook has even been told by one councillor that his national profile was helpful when he was the health spokesman in 1992 but that "it doesn't make so much difference now you have been sidelined to doing Europe".

Sidelined he isn't. But how will Cook function in a Blair cabinet? He won't say so, but he is certainly conscious that his left-wing credentials are as useful to Blair as they are to him. Conversely, if there was a revolt by intellectuals and peasants against a Blair government that had failed to fulfil its promise, it isn't difficult to imagine Cook at its head. Whatever Cook really thinks about his old opponent, Gordon Brown's ultra-austere spending totals, he is a canny, grown-up politician. He is conscious of how in 1974 Labour spent first - and paid later. Cook at least shares Brown's belief that this is the wrong way round.

He still refuses, having been converted away from anti-devolutionism by the outcome of the 1983 election, to rule out the possibility of forsaking Westminster in the future and going to Edinburgh as a member of the Scottish parliament. He himself says it would be "presumptuous" to think he would be Scotland's prime minister if he did. He agrees that until he took his present job three years ago he wasn't a foreign affairs specialist. But no one would say since then - an authentic Cookism, this - "that I haven't applied myself to it".

The Foreign Office would give him, because of the central importance of Europe to domestic policy, an important entree across the board of Cabinet policy-making. Sir John Coles, the Permanent Secretary, recently told him he had never known as crowded an international agenda as the UK faces over the next 18 months: the IGC in Amsterdam, the British EU and G7 presidencies, Hong Kong, EMU.

As Cook puts it: "It would be rather odd to be offered the world and say you'll have to go away and think about it."

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