Labour joins forces to put Cook in clear

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The Independent Online
Labour MPs yesterday shouted down Michael Howard's call for Robin Cook to resign for allegedly sacking his diary secretary to make way for his mistress, Gaynor Regan. Colin Brown, Chief Political, Correspondent says Labour hope the Foreign Secretary is now off the hook.

The Government staged a rescue operation for Robin Cook yesterday to destroy an attack by Michael Howard and Tory backbenchers on the Foreign Secretary.

Tony Blair dismissed the assault as opposition by "trivial pursuits" but friends of the Foreign Secretary were relieved the carefully planned counter-attack on the Tories had secured Mr Cook's position, which, barring further accidents, was no longer under threat at Westminster.

Mr Cook was absent from the chamber, meeting his German counterpart, Klaus Kinkel, and preparing for a mission to the Gulf.

It was the first time the Conservatives had called for Mr Cook's resignation but Labour spin-doctors were satisfied the steam has run out of the Conservative drive to force the Foreign Secretary to go. A Tory MP said: "They did a good job. We couldn't keep it going."

Labour's tactics were carefully co-ordinated. The Prime Minister's words echoed those in the headline on an article in yesterday's Evening Standard by Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, who linked the Tory attack on trips abroad by ministers and their partners, spending on flats, and Mr Cook's partner as "trivia". A party source said: "We could have left the chamber empty but the press would have said Robin Cook has no friends. This was a spontaneous demonstration of support for the Foreign Secretary." Mr Howard accused Mr Cook of a "scandalous abuse of ministerial power" by sacking Anne Bullen as his diary secretary. There were shouts at the former home secretary: "You sacked Derek Lewis (former prisons chief)". But Labour's counter-attack, led by Derek Fatchett, Foreign Office minister, centred on a letter by Douglas Hurd, former foreign secretary, showing he had replaced his own diary secretary after a few months "because things did not work out".

Mr Fatchett said the letter was written after civil-service trade-union members complained at Lord Hurd's appointment of Ms Bullen. He also claimed she was chosen because of a family Eton connection and she was a political appointment, not a career civil servant. She had been a personal assistant to the Earl of Limerick, a friend of Lord Hurd and contemporary at Eton. She had worked with a company which had close connections with the Foreign Office. Her appointment upset other civil servants because it by-passed rules requiring competition for posts and was on a contract of up to five years.