Labour In Turmoil: Master in opposition but not in art of the possible

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The Independent Online
ROBIN COOK was one of the glittering stars on the Labour benches in opposition, but his shining career was tarnished long before Margaret Cook's book was serialised.

Mr Cook faced a call yesterday for his sacking, not for sexual affairs but for his "pretty sorry record" at the Foreign Office. Lavishly praised by Tony Blair, Mr Cook was savaged by Michael Howard, the Tory spokesman on foreign affairs.

The "charge sheet" read out by Mr Howard included: bungling a royal visit to India; causing great offence during his trip to Israel; failing to support a UN motion of censure against China for its record on human rights; deliberately misleading people over the UN arms embargo against Sierra Leone; failing to implement an immediate flight ban on Serbian airlines when it appeared a ban had been imposed; and creating a diplomatic crisis with Chile over the Pinochet affair.

"China's most distinguished democrat, Wei Jingsheng, went so far as to describe Mr Cook as two-faced," said Mr Howard.

The Foreign Secretary's first error of judgement was to imagine that he could follow the ethical principles in government that he had pronounced upon in opposition. It was compounded by the launch of an ethical foreign policy, which cynical observers said was doomed to failure the moment it was unveiled.

He promised there would be no sales of arms that could be used for internal repression, but in government, he found the Foreign Office impotent to stop the sale of equipment to Indonesia because he could not revoke the export licences which had been granted by the Conservative government.

Critics of Mr Cook attribute these self-inflicted wounds to his arrogance in office. He ran into trouble when his civil service secretary at the Foreign Office complained she had been ditched to make way for Gaynor Regan, his Commons secretary, who later became his wife.

He has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, and his intellectual brilliance, coupled with a spiky wit, has made him few friends in the Commons.

Without powerful friends in government, he was an easy target when the sniping began. In the leadership election, he voted for Mr Blair and John Prescott, who subsequently decided to forge an alliance with the Chancellor, rather than with Mr Cook.

Mr Cook's rivalry with Gordon Brown - who, as Chancellor, occupies the one job Mr Cook coveted, according to his ex-wife - led to sharp exchanges between the Foreign Office and the Treasury over the euro.

His friends were not surprised by the revelations of sexual affairs, but they were shocked by the allegations that he was a drunk, which they strongly rejected. "He will sip a glass of cheap chardonnay in the Foreign Office, and perhaps have a glass of whisky after dinner, but he's not one to reach for the bottle," said one source close to Mr Cook.