Leading article: A loss for all of us

Unusually for a politician, he was able to flourish in all stages of political life, making the transition from opposition terrier to model administrator when he was passed the keys to the Foreign Office in 1997. He quickly declared the age of "tea and cucumber sandwiches over", upsetting some of the old guard by setting up a Human Rights Department to champion the ethical causes in the face of hard-nosed geopolitical calculations.

Despite the furore over his "ethical foreign policy" Cook at least set a yardstick by which Britain's policies should be measured. And for a man whose manner was sometimes described as brusque, he had more than his share of diplomatic successes - brokering a deal to try the Libyan suspects of the Lockerbie bombing, improving relations with Iran, and holding a fractious coalition together during the Kosovo war. After almost 20 years of Conservative handbagging, he pioneered the revolutionary British tactic of listening to his European counterparts. In an age where politicians often cling to power, his principled resignation over the Iraq war was notable in that he never showed bitterness towards the cabinet colleagues with whom he disagreed.

When John Smith died in similarly sudden circumstances in 1994, Robin Cook was an early contender for leader of the party. A Labour Party under Cook would have been a very different beast - which is perhaps why he bathed in adulation at party conference.

Cook will be best remembered as a politician who doggedly refused to court popularity. Instead of football and rock music, his leisure interests featured a country squire's mixture of whisky, gambling and horse-racing. Perhaps that is why, in an age of identikit politicians and anaemic soundbites, Cook won a respect far beyond his natural political constituency.

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