Serbia retreat is the latest in Cook's tour de farces

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WHEN IT came, the climbdown was of breathtaking proportions. For days, beleaguered British officials had defended the UK's failure to implement a flight ban on Serbia because of legal niceties.

As Britain's isolation grew - Serb-friendly Greece was our only ally - the rhetoric hardened; how, ran the argument, could we expect countries to obey international law if we were breaking agreements?

All that began to change on Monday morning when Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary and architect of the "ethical dimension" to foreign policy, returned from his autumn break in France. Within hours Mr Cook and Tony Blair had spoken and concluded that Britain's stance was becoming unsustainable. Later, when the Prime Minister talked to one of Britain's chief critics, Jacques Santer, the President of the European Commission, the die was cast.

That the Government should have changed tack is not surprising. As one ally said: "Robin certainly did not want to go to the Labour Party conference with this building up, and with Britain being practically the only state with direct, daily air links to the `Great Satan' [Slobodan] Milosevic."

What has caused bafflement in European capitals is that the Foreign Office and Foreign Secretary could have been on such different courses.

It also shows the Foreign Office's lack of sensitivity with the situation on the ground in Kosovo where details are emerging of how troops under the command of Mr Milosevic have shot many ethnic Albanian civilians, and through a scorched-earth policy are fixing to let many more - hundreds of thousands - starve to death over the coming winter.

Pressure for Nato intervention is building among the western allies amid signs that the rhetoric about sanctions is having no effect.

The upshot of Britain's muddled foreign policy is that once again questions are being asked about Mr Cook's stewardship of his department, about its ability to reflect and act on his priorities. After a year dominated by bad news, over his remarriage, the Queen's state visit to India and the Sandline "arms-to-Africa" affair, another row was just what Mr Cook could have done without.

Part of this was bad luck. The Foreign Secretary had worked through much of August and was on annual leave when the row over Serbian reprisals reached a climax. But even that shows a lack of a sure touch, because Mr Cook failed to attend one meeting at which the ban was discussed, the informal meeting of foreign ministers in Salzburg on 5 and 6 September. His decision to send Joyce Quin, the new Europe minister, was much criticised by other foreign ministers who saw it as evidence of arrogance, but Mr Cook himself was probably the main loser. Had he been in Salzburg and detected the determination of other nations to press ahead with the flight ban, despite their legal problems, Britain would probably not have found itself in such a corner.

In the event the informal meeting was a lost opportunity. One insider said: "Nobody has a bad word against Joyce but nobody sees her as a latterday Castlereagh either. At those meetings you are surrounded by officials and junior ministers at the FCO tend not to open their mouths."

But familiar Foreign Office problems were about to re-emerge. From the start, Mr Cook's dismissal of the diary secretary, and his announcement of a new ethical dimension to foreign policy, the Foreign Secretary's relationship with his department has been uneasy. His attempts to reform the Foreign Office, to widen its recruitment and to create new sources of foreign policy advice, have caused resentment. He was politically damaged by his marriage break-up. Mr Cook's allies began to suspect a low-level campaign of sniping by his own officials. Nor did the Sandline row, with the implication that some ministers had been poorly served by officials, improve internal cohesion. Here, if nothing else, was evidence of a divergence of thinking between minister and departments.

As with the Sandline case, the machinery at the Foreign Office was moving in a different direction. Because of a 1959 bilateral agreement with Yugoslavia on air services, Foreign Office lawyers argued that the ban - which had been agreed under the British presidency - could not be implemented until one year's notice had been given. At one level this reflects Britain's traditional diplomatic posture. As one official put it: "Britain has always been a stickler for the rules and this is a strength, not a weakness because it helps us to ensure that others stick to the rules too." But a legalistic line on sanctions against President Milosevic ignored the words and sentiments of Mr Cook on the subject. It failed to appreciate the comfort that such public disarray in the EU would give to the Serbs.

As such it reflects the continuing differences between the Foreign Secretary and the government department he wishes to modernise. As one ally of Mr Cook put it: "The Foreign Office is an institution which is used to imposing its pattern of thinking on ministers. Now it's confronted by ministers with ideas of their own. You can see the tensions which have not been fully worked out." None of which bodes well for Mr Cook.