Cook back in Blair fold to win over wavering voters

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Indy Politics

The former foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned from the Cabinet in protest over the war in Iraq, is to be brought back by Tony Blair to win over disaffected Labour voters during the general election campaign.

The former foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned from the Cabinet in protest over the war in Iraq, is to be brought back by Tony Blair to win over disaffected Labour voters during the general election campaign.

The Prime Minister, whose personal standing has been damaged by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, is ready to ask Mr Cook to spearhead a tour of the Labour marginals where the party could lose seats if its core voters stay at home.

Mr Cook resigned in March 2003 on the eve of the Commons vote that took Britain into the war alongside the US against Iraq. But he carefully avoided personally attacking Mr Blair, saying in his resignation speech to the Commons that he hoped Mr Blair would not be replaced and would win a third term.

A senior cabinet minister involved in election planning said: "Robin is highly respected across the party. He has got enormous credibility and can reassure those supporters who have misgivings about the war."

While most people said in a poll for ITV News yesterday that the war would not change the way they vote, almost a third - 31 per cent - said it would.

Mr Blair's reliance on Mr Cook to win back wavering voters will be seen by some of his critics as a sign of weakness. However, the Labour Party campaign leaders believe Mr Cook could play a decisive role in stopping support leaking to the Liberal Democrats in key seats because of the war.

Since his resignation, Mr Cook has toured the country lending his support to Labour MPs in their constituencies. He also ended a 30-year feud with Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and is being tipped for a return to high office in a Brown government in the third term.

Mr Cook will not be given a formal role, but his close allies said that he had signalled his readiness to do all he could for Labour's third-term election campaign. David Hanson, the Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary (PPS), and Ken Purchase, Mr Cook's former PPS, are both said to have been involved in persuading Mr Blair and Mr Cook to bury their differences for the good of the party.

"Robin took some arm twisting, but he is firmly on board," said one of his friends. "He has got a lot of clout in the party and with the public generally. He has that rare quality of being a politician that people believe in."

Mr Cook was proved right over the war, warning Mr Blair when he resigned that the coalition would not find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

He is likely to be asked to go to marginals in the West Midlands and other regions where there is a high proportion of Muslim Labour voters who are likely not to vote or switch their votes to the Liberal Democrats, who opposed the war.

Another senior cabinet minister said the Labour leadership fears that a swing by Labour voters to the Liberal Democrats in such areas could lead to the Tories winning marginal seats from Labour. "I have been round the marginals and I am very worried," said the minister. "If the Lib Dem vote firms up, and we lose support, it could let the Tories in."

That message is likely to be reinforced by Mr Cook. But the party leadership is unlikely to call on Clare Short to perform the same role. The former international development secretary resigned from the Cabinet in May 2003, after the war, but made a series of highly personal attacks on Mr Blair, urging him to make way for Mr Brown before the election. Her words could be thrown back at Labour at the general election.

Polls have shown that trust in Mr Blair has plummeted. A poll by Ipsos RSL for ITV News as Iraq went into its elections showed that 61 per cent thought Britain was wrong to join the invasion, and just 32 per cent thought it was right.

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