Robin Cook has been censured for mishandling the affair with his secretary. But the Government machine has been found wanting too
THERE is, of course, a perfectly dishonourable tradition of MPs running off with their secretaries. It goes with the territory, as they say. The nature of the job dictates that politicians regularly spend a great deal more time with their secretaries than with their wives. This is one good reason why so many employ their wives as their secretaries: it saves on the heartache.

However, Robin Cook's handling of his elopement with Gaynor Regan has set British records for sheer cack-handed incompetence. Every time this embarrassing saga threatens to get boring, the Foreign Secretary re-boots it. The Conservatives can scarcely believe their good fortune. The party that so recently foundered amid sleaze can now reoccupy the high moral ground, and train their guns on the unethical behaviour of a senior Cabinet minister who made such a public show of promoting an "ethical foreign policy".

It was always going to happen, just as John Major's "back to basics" was destined to be deliberately misinterpreted and then to backfire spectacularly in a welter of mistresses, "love children" and sexual peccadillos. Cook's affair with his Commons secretary was an open secret at Westminster months before it was exposed in the News of the World last summer. It only became a story when the Foreign Secretary put himself on an ethical pedestal shortly after occupying his office, thus inviting the inevitable, odious comparisons between public protestations and private conduct.

Cook's people are said by Westminster insiders to be "shell-shocked" at the relentless turn of the media screw. The Foreign Secretary himself has been casting round the parliamentary Labour party for friends and allies to console him. On Thursday night, he entertained more than a dozen MPs in his grandiose office, the one where his illustrious forebear Sir Edward Grey said "the lamps are going out all over Europe" as the First World War began. It's not that bad, but the lights of his brilliant career are being extinguished one by one. A veteran Labour back-bencher who attended the meeting thought Cook was an anxious man: "It's the effect this thing is having on his political career." Another MP was critical of Cook's clumsy handling of the scandal: "If, at the start, he had said 'my private life is separate from my public life', then that would have been fine. But every time his private life becomes involved in his public life, he starts the whole story off again."

HOW did the scandal spin out of control? Last summer, three months after Labour's landslide victory - which had been triumphantly predicted by Cook - his relationship with his secretary was exposed by the News of the World. True to form, Downing Street's spin doctors tried to put the lid on the affair by ordering the hapless Foreign Secretary to choose between his wife and his mistress. With hardly a pause for thought, Cook chose Gaynor Regan, 10 years younger than his wife. Tony Blair soon declared that the matter was a private tragedy that had nothing to do with Cook's great office of state.

The matter ought to have ended there, if the Tories had not begun to mine a rich seam of embarrassment caused by spending public money on paying for ministers' spouses to accompany them on trips. No matter that the attacks oozed with hypocrisy (the Tories had behaved in exactly the same way while in government). Labour had promised to be squeaky clean, and here was Robin Cook taking his mistress on trips abroad at the taxpayer's expense. Worse still, Labour MPs grumbled that this was not playing well in the constituencies.

Yet Cook's luck held, even through the disastrous Royal tour of India last October, from which he absented himself at a crucial juncture to fly home to Gaynor, telling officials: "I want to sleep in my own bed." He might have got away with it, had it not been for the dramatic appearance six months later of another wronged woman, this time his former diary secretary, Miss Anne Bullen, a steely lady if ever there was one. Cook had sacked her within three weeks of taking office, arguing last week that she was "impossible to work with" and a Conservative to boot. No one disputed that Miss Bullen could be hoity-toity. One senior lobby journalist who had to negotiate an interview with Cook, through her, described her as "stuck-up" and "a cow", but Cook's public criticism was widely thought to be the behaviour of an old-fashioned cad.

Even Bullen's peremptory dismissal might have passed unnoticed - as a former civil servant she is forbidden to speak out - but for another cock-up which was also revealed long after the event. Cook tried to infiltrate Gaynor into his office as a replacement for Miss Bullen. An agreeable arrangement, no doubt, but Foreign Office officials who investigated her application realised that she had given the same home address as the man who would be her boss. To allow the appointment to stand would have been unthinkable. The FCO would have been joining the cosy conspiracy. Cook backed down, or in his own words: "I quickly decided not to pursue that option." In fact, as he subsequently admitted, it took him nine whole days to abandon his bid to employ his mistress.

The scandal kept bubbling up to the surface as Mrs Cook, an articulate and feisty hospital consultant - the Foreign Secretary seems, perversely, to specialise in women who can dish it out as well as take it - dribbled out spicy little stories about her husband. He got back into the headlines by moving Gaynor into his official residence in Carlton Terrace. After that, this gripping soap opera appeared to be petering out - until Miss Bullen decided to wreak her revenge. The story of her dismissal first appeared as an item in Black Dog's gossip column of the Mail on Sunday two weeks ago, without the key detail of Cook's bid to hire Gaynor in her place. Within 48 hours "friends" of Miss Bullen had telephoned the MoS, asking: "Why don't you print the full story? It's much worse than you think." The story ran on its front page last week, and on Sunday morning the media was camped outside Miss Bullen's flat in Fulham Road, west London. The ubiquitous "friends" were very busy. The Mirror secured her exclusive story, and the rest of the pack followed swiftly behind. It was such a neat, home-grown follow-up to the Clinton sex scandal that the tabloids could not get enough. Cook was daft enough to draw a comparison with the tribulations of the US president, proclaiming: "It is important that he continues with his duties, as I do myself."

There were suggestions that Conservative Central Office was masterminding the story, but these are wide of the mark. It would be unwise to assume that Smith Square could mount such an operation these days. In fact, it was old-fashioned doorstep journalism, ably assisted, so it is claimed, with the flourish of a cheque book. But it was also a godsend for the Opposition. Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Howard put down a clutch of parliamentary questions designed to embarrass. Liam Fox, a former minister at the FO, was wheeled out to defend Miss Bullen and attack Cook's "gross misuse of his authority". Fox, a member of William Hague's shadow ministerial team, said: "It's not the fact that he's had an affair that is so offensive, although I am sure many women will feel his treatment of his wife was very shoddy. It's the fact that he tried to use his position to get his mistress a job." Hague devoted his full quota at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday to the Cook Affair, needling Blair until he spat out his "useless and pathetic" charge at the Conservatives. Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, immediately briefed lobby correspondents that this was "a defining moment in British politics".

DEFINING what exactly? If anything, the Cook Affair has served only to throw into sharp relief the deficiencies in Labour's handling of awkward events. Robin Cook came into government respected for a razor-sharp mind and his formidable mastery of the Commons. He did not, it is true, want to go to the Foreign Office. He wanted to get his hands on the levers of the economy, and his arch-rival (some would say his enemy) Gordon Brown was determined that he would not. Cook did not bother to disguise his contempt for some of the ways of the FCO, and in a television documentary compared his attitude to work to that of his illustrious post-war predecessor, Ernest Bevin, who would ignore the red boxes left by his civil servants for him to work on over the weekend, observing that their hopes were touching but misplaced. Things have changed since then. Britain may no longer be an imperial power, but the amount of work required of a Foreign Secretary is prodigious, and a continuing distraction like the "Nookie Cookie" saga could seriously undermine his performance.

Furthermore, Cook's maladroit handling of this episode begs the question: what would he do in a real crisis? Last week, John Prescott impressed the Commons with his swift and tough line on the high-speed Channel rail crisis. Frank Dobson has acquitted himself well on the health front, and David Blunkett has stamped his authority at education. Some ministers are shaking down well. They look like real government. By contrast, Cook is mired in a scandal that shows no sign of going away, and it will get worse before it gets better.

The Tories have set aside an adjournment debate on Wednesday to impale the Foreign Secretary. So far, they have fought shy of demanding his resignation, on the understandable grounds that it would be counter-productive. Cook himself has been too proud to seek the support of his Cabinet colleagues. His advisers are simply not returning the calls. Remarkably, it was Chancellor Brown who finally broke the log jam at a private meeting in the Commons on Thursday night. In an old Labour-style show of solidarity, he urged Cook to "hang in there" and see off the Conservative offensive. And if he can survive this, foreign policy may look more interesting and challenging, after all.