Commons sketch: Cook makes a meal of Tory `hoo-haa'

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ROBIN COOK has always been consistent in the past. If something has gone wrong, you always know that somebody else will be to blame. It might be his officials at the Foreign Office. It could be a ministerial sidekick. Or, if worst comes to worst, there's always the media.

On this occasion, it seemed as though the Foreign Secretary might be in real trouble. Despite all attempts to blame the usual suspects, the muddy waters have continued to lap higher.

But Mr Cook was in luck at yesterday's emergency questions. Whatever cock-ups or conspiracies he or the Government may or may not have been involved with ("mustn't prejudice the outcome of the inquiry" is a very useful phrase), it was clear that anything Labour had done wrong, the Tories had gone one worse. If the baying Tories were hoping for some fearful symmetry that would let them retrospectively off the hook regarding the arms-to-Iraq affair, they were to be disappointed.

Admittedly, the yes-people on the Labour side - including one little group that pointed fingers in swaying unison across the chamber from left to right, like a particularly naff clutch of disco dancers - were unimpressive. Better value were notorious troublemakers such as Dennis Skinner, who embarrassingly blamed Foreign Office officials for what had gone wrong. Mr Cook looked miffed by the mischievous dredging up of last week's "blame the mandarins" media spin, quite out of kilter with this week's official praise. Mr Cook insisted, with cloying sincerity, that he had "never detected" any resistance or conspiracies against him inside the Foreign Office.

Meanwhile, Michael Howard - who as shadow Foreign Secretary was entrusted with the unenviable task of making rhetorical mincemeat of Mr Cook - did his level best to pin his opponent down.

He noted the strange turnaround by which last week's "very serious allegations" had suddenly metamorphosed into mere "hoo-ha". He even argued that Mr Cook had made "a complete mockery of any pretensions he may have to an ethical foreign policy".

Unfortunately, this led Mr Howard into an uncomfortable cul-de-sac, where Tory politicians venture at their peril. By comparison to supplying arms to Saddam Hussein, and then organising a massive cover-up, Mr Howard's accusations all seemed rather tame.

The killer blow came when Mr Cook declared: "I have some sympathy for the honourable gentleman ..." As Mr Howard began to squirm, the Foreign Secretary said he was "enjoying the cross- examination", which was supposed to be his moment "on the rack". And if Mr Howard wanted to organise a repeat, he would be "very happy" to oblige.