As Robin Cook fails to live up to his billing, look out for John Prescott

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THE Sandline affair is very far from being a first-order crisis. Nor will it become one even if Peter Penfold, the British High Commissioner, turns out to have discussed military coups with President Kabbah and someone from a mercenary group in some fly-blown hotel bar in Conakry. But it shows a stubborn reluctance to lie down.

Yesterday was not the Foreign Office's finest hour. Appearing before a Commons Select committee, Sir John Kerr, the Permanent Secretary, exonerated Robin Cook of knowing about the Customs and Excise investigation into Sandline before he says he did. He made a convincing, if magisterial, case for allowing competent officials to deal with breaches of UN sanctions without constantly referring them upwards to ministers before they have been investigated.

And he then left a shadow of doubt over the future of the Minister of State, Tony Lloyd, by saying, first, that he thought a reference to the "rather routine" Customs and Excise investigation had been included in the official briefing pack given to him before an adjournment debate on 12 March. And secondly, that Lloyd, and not Cook, had been the minister initially told in April of Sandline's counter-allegations that FCO officials had been in cahoots with the company's plans to restore President Kabbah by military force.

All this seemed perfectly coherent. Until 4pm yesterday afternoon, when Sir John then announced that Mr Lloyd had, after all, not been told on 12 March that there was a Customs and Excise investigation. Which begs a question which officials were last night unable to answer: why on earth not?

Nevertheless, the question of who knew what, when - which so obsessed Sir John's inquisitors - is in danger of overshadowing some larger ones that seemed not to interest them at all. Had it, in retrospect, been so smart to draft a UN resolution which made it as unlawful to help the "good guys" (to use Tony Blair's phrase) in Sierra Leone as to help the bad guys? What is the balance to strike between the need to limit the appalling flow of paper to ministers in any big government department and the need to alert them to perils ahead.

And while officials now turn out to have been a good deal more reticent than they should have been, did Robin Cook really have to make a drama out of a crisis by reacting at the outset of the affair as if not he, but possibly his department, could be embroiled in the sort of re-run of the Scott affair that this certainly wasn't?

Cook is probably the cleverest man in the Cabinet. His handling of complex EU negotia- tions has been pretty well faultless. His conduct of business in official meetings is decisive, brisk, and efficient. Sir John's account yesterday of how Cook, hungry for insights, cross- questioned him on a range of world issues late into the night when they first met in Washington is wholly convincing. I have it on the disinterested authority of the German ambassador to the EU that his chairmanship of the General Affairs council during the EU Presidency is exemplary.

No less a predecessor than Lord Hurd refuses to condemn the trouble he got into in India and the Middle East, on the grounds that there but for the grace of God he might have gone himself. And, finally, Sir John's belated "clarification" last night demonstrates that on at least one occasion during the Sandline affair, officials were unnecessarily economical with the truth in their dealings with ministers.

There is nevertheless a mounting sense, compounded by the harassment Cook faces over the business Britain does with the brutal regime in Indonesia, that not all is well in the department he is responsible for running.

First, there is his initial judgement in announcing, in a blaze of publicity, an ethical foreign policy. This is not to say cynically that he shouldn't have pursued one; rather that he should have not announced it in advance, allowing every subsequent sale of arms, every contact with a dubious regime to be judged against it.

Secondly, relations between officials and ministers have been - at least temporarily - brought to a new low by an affair that should never have been allowed to run out of control as it has. Suddenly the Foreign Office has become the bed of nails the Home Office traditionally was and now - so far - isn't.

The stranger contrast, however, is perhaps with John Prescott, who happens to be the other most prominent left-winger in the Cabinet. If you had asked many politicians a year ago who would be in trouble at this stage of the Parliament, Prescott would have figured the answers. Unstable, liable to blow up, incapable of driving policy, George Brown without the drink problem, even, perhaps, in Attlee's chilling words about a colleague "not up to it".

It doesn't look like that now. Indeed the closest parallel to Prescott's role in the Government appears to be that of William Whitelaw under Margaret Thatcher. True, Whitelaw's role was always ambiguous. His dilemma, as Prescott's sometimes is, is how to convert his indispensability into real influence. It was never completely clear whether his main function was to restrain Margaret Thatcher's worst excesses or to ensure that the non- Thatcherites in the party put up with them, on the principle that "if it's OK with Willie, it's OK with us".

Some of this is apparent in the close attention paid by Prescott to the terms of the compromise all but agreed yesterday on trade-union recognition. Prescott wasn't the main player in reaching that compromise; a good deal of it is owed to the DTI minister Ian McCartney and the highly developed negotiating skills of John Monks, the general secretary of the TUC. But Prescott in effect becomes its guarantor. He has remained remarkably true to the principle he formulated during the 1994 leadership contest: that he would disagree, if necessary, with his leader in private, but defend him in public.

This doesn't mean that everything in his department is perfect; far from it. The part- privatisation of the London Underground, for example, is a high-risk and possibly high-cost blend of old and New Labour. But Prescott shows every sign of being able to subordinate, perhaps more skillfully than some of his colleagues, his own ego to the interests of the government collective.

And he should get his reward next month with a Transport White Paper that contains, despite opposition in some other parts of government, his cherished policy of road pricing in urban areas, including London.

Cook will certainly not be moved in the next reshuffle; he remains one of the Cabinet's big beasts. Moreover he has time, as Lord Hurd pointed out yesterday, to rebuild the morale and coherence of his department.

But there must be times when he looks across Whitehall to the office of the Deputy Prime Minister and envies the smooth trajectory of John Prescott since 1 May.