Parliament: Crass Howard takes the heat off the Foreign Secretary

The Sketch

THERE WAS no sign of alcohol in the glass beside the Foreign Secretary, who looked totally sober, not to say grave, as he rose to make his Commons statement on the British nationals kidnapped or killed recently in Yemen.

Robin Cook's statement was drafted in the careful diplo-speak essential when terrorism, abduction or death threaten British citizens abroad. Normally it would have been made to an empty House, with few MPs able to point to Yemen on a map. But Mr Cook was the man of the moment, the latest minister in trouble after three weeks of disaster for the Government.

It was not all bad news. While Mr Cook may not be the most user-friendly Government minister, he is the epitome of charm and dignity when up against Michael Howard. In a crass single sentence the Conservative spokesman provided a rallying point for the unity, loyalty and solidarity of Labour MPs to Mr Cook in his hour of need.

Mr Howard exploded with synthetic rage, linking the events in Yemen with an extraordinary attack on the release of prisoners in Northern Ireland under the Good Friday agreement. He accused Mr Cook of evading the media amid a series of ill-judged personal attacks. In short, he blew it, ensuring that Mr Cook escaped unscathed.

The Foreign Secretary and Labour whips had done a good job press-ganging troops to fill the Government's back benches. Flanked on the front bench by John Prescott, Jack Straw and Frank Dobson, Mr Cook plodded nervously through the statement setting out the discussions he has had with the Yemeni authorities and the British ambassador. This was not Mr Cook's normal, assured, arrogant performance and it was clear that his nerves were occasionally jangling.

Unfortunately, the more he spoke about "relatives" and "sympathy to the families", the more MPs' and journalists' minds wandered back to the revelations about Mr Cook's own relatives and family.

No one, barring half-a-dozen back-benchers who actually understood the complexities ofYemen, had their minds focused on anything except Mr Cook's marital infidelities. As he spoke about travel advice and tour operators, thoughts turned to a holiday curtailed at the VIP lounge in Heathrow airport, courtesy of Alastair Campbell.

Unfortunate phrases like "bringing the full truth into the open" piqued curiosity about the full truth of claims about bottles of brandy and sleeping pills in Margaret Cook's book. Mr Cook spoke of the need to "retain credibility among the public" and the launch of a global series of seminars and consultations to "share best practice". Such stultifying phrases guaranteed time for rumination on the manner in which the Cooks' marriage had disintegrated.

Even a liberal peppering of the Foreign Secretary's statement with the Pavlovian shock word "terrorism" barely served to remind us that he was speaking only aboutYemen and the fate of British citizens.

Somehow, the Government's difficulties have mounted in spite of the fact that it had not been called to account by Parliament until yesterday. The minute the press hand back scrutiny of ministers to the Conservative Party and Mr Howard, the Government begins to be able to get away with anything.

Even George Galloway, who has an axe to grind against the Government over Middle East policy and suspects some of the British held by Yemen to be involved in terrorism, weighed in to save the day. In an echo of Churchill in 1944, Mr Galloway summed up the mood of the House by describing Mr Howard as "not being able to see a belt without hitting below it".

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