You can stop digging now, Robin, the hole's big enough

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Indy Lifestyle Online
What the Foreign Secretary does in his private life should not colour our judgement of how he does the job.

But the horribly inept way he has handled things doesn't half

make you wonder, says Ann Treneman.

Robin Cook is an extremely clever man who is stupid about a lot of things. He cannot go near an airport without getting divorced or married. He keeps Princess Diana waiting and leaves the Queen in India to attend to pressing business back home (he evidently visited a biscuit factory). He cannot be trusted to have a meeting with the Albanians - yes, evidently we still do meet them - without being vicious about his former diary secretary. And, perhaps most telling of all, he has allowed himself to be photographed wearing a disastrous straw hat and gold-tipped sunglasses. "God he really does need a woman to dress him," said one observer looking at yesterday's front pages of the Foreign Secretary looking more cad than Cook.

He obviously needs someone to tell him that when you are in a hole you must, absolutely must, stop digging. After all, his boss is still on his side, as is his party and much of the press. At Wednesday's Question Time the Prime Minister made it crystal clear that anyone showing interest in the subject of the Cook, his wife and his lover was an extremely sad person. After all, the Tory leader William Hague showed an interest and the Prime Minister savaged this as "completely useless and pathetic".

But the truth is that the public gallery is interested. Call it the Hello! factor. Say that we are in love with the trivial and that the media has got entertainment confused with news. Whatever, we are interested because it is soap made real and there are a lot of suds in this one. Or maybe it is just that we are rather interested in what the people we pay to represent us get up to. And now that we have had enough of oral sex, kneepads and President Clinton, we are ready to turn our full attention to Mr Cook and his judgement problem.

It all started on 1 August when the Foreign Secretary and his wife were on their way to Heathrow to fly to Montana for a three-week riding holiday. The phone rang and it was not good news. Tony Blair's press spokesman Alastair Campbell told Mr Cook that a newspaper was about to reveal his affair with his secretary. Mr Cook got to the airport, rented a VIP suite, cancelled his holiday and told his wife of 28 years the marriage was off too. "Perhaps if his mobile phone had been switched off they might have boarded that plane and still be married," says Linda McDougall who interviewed Margaret Cook for her book Westminster Women.

The full story didn't come out until earlier this month, at which point Mr Cook again found himself in another airport with something to say. "The only relationship I have is with the woman I love and with the woman I will marry," he said. Perhaps it then occurred to him that he was already married to a woman. "And I am going to get married as soon as I get divorced." Honestly, is this any way for a Foreign Secretary to talk?

It gets worse. This week his former diary secretary Anne Bullen accused him of firing her to make way for his mistress. His response, made after a meeting with the Albanians in Brussels, was to deny this and to say Anne Bullen was "impossible to work with". This made headlines. He was accused of abandoning the Queen during her trip to India to return to his mistress in Scotland. Buckingham Palace rode to his rescue to say that this had been fine with Her Majesty. This made headlines. He was said to have kept Princess Diana waiting for 20 minutes. Mr Cook found a letter the Princess had sent him that thanked him for giving up "your precious time". This made headlines. Besides which, we now learn, it wasn't 20 minutes but 15. Oh well that must be OK then.

It is fashionable to say that, while all of this is very entertaining, it doesn't really have much to do with being Foreign Secretary. We are told that the private lives of our politicians should be kept just that, private. It is none of our business if it doesn't affect their work. The problem, it seems, is ours. We are probably the kind of people who read OK! and watch day-time television. But we did not create those headlines and Mr Cook has only himself to blame.

The personal is political for the simple reason that it can tell us a lot about someone's character. Politicians do not seem to understand that we are not so interested in the actual events as the way they are handled. Therefore, the fact that Robin Cook is replacing his wife with his mistress is not nearly as interesting as the way in which he has gone about doing it. Nor are we that bothered about his sacked secretary - lots of people have one - except for the fact that he has been so very mean about her. (He was provoked but that is not an excuse.) Nor do we really care if he kept Princess Diana waiting. But it is interesting that he should not be able to see that the letter he released in his defence was worded so ambiguously.

Sometimes the details of a personal life can be so damning as to render the political obsolete. This could be called the "David Mellor factor" and means that, at some point and especially if you have a thing for the Chelsea strip, the public does not want to employ you any more. Robin Cook has not reached this point - the latest poll showed Labour's popularity down only one percentage point - but there is still time.

This is because Mr Cook is still a clever man who does stupid things. After all, the first thing to do when accused of having no judgement is to show some judgement. Why not display a little quiet dignity? This week Mr Cook could take a leaf from Clinton's book and carry on with "business as usual". If he has to talk, then it should be about ethical foreign policies or Saddam Hussein or some other safe subject. Instead of which Mr Cook - who was not even near an airport at the time - decides to tell us about his new love. (Where are the Labour spin doctors in all this? Mr Cook may be disliked but is this any reason to abandon him?)

The result was yesterday's "EXCLUSIVE" in The Sun by political editor Trevor Kavanaugh. "Gaynor has transformed my life. I have experienced more happiness in the last few months than I can remember," said Mr Cook. Can this be true? Perhaps he likes being pilloried by the press and being the butt of jokes. (As Julie Burchill said: "Tell me, the women who sleep with Robin Cook, what do they do for fun?") If this is happy then someone needs to find out what makes him unhappy.

But still he does not stop. This time he makes a joke. We know it is a joke because Trevor Kavanaugh explains that it is: "Mr Cook - who has spent much of the past eight months in EU talks - joked: 'Gaynor is resigned to the prospect of a honeymoon in Brussels. I have to ask my diary secretary to find a free weekend." Anne Bullen may have found this funny but I'm not sure about the rest of us.

Yesterday's interview with Kathy Reichs was by Andrew G Marshall, not Ann Treneman, as stated. Apologies to all concerned.