Leading article: Cook's legacy should be a timetable for leaving Iraq

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The Independent Online

Robin Cook left office as Leader of the House with dignity and in style, citing principled opposition to the Iraq war, and in doing so rendered a service to the tarnished image of Parliament and of politicians in general.

The timing of his departure was the key to understanding the man. A formidable orator, he delivered his resignation speech - a magisterial demolition of the Government's case for military intervention in Iraq - the night before the parliamentary debate on the war in March 2003 rather than during the debate itself.

The Prime Minister's camp feared he would keep his powder dry until the debate opened, perhaps tipping vital votes away from the hawks. Arguably, he might have brought down the Government. He didn't even try. Typically, he agreed to drop his bombshell before the debate opened and so defuse its impact.

It was also characteristic of a man whose final loyalty lay to the Labour Government and who, after surrendering a job that he clearly loved, remained remarkably free of rancour and spite.

Back among the rank and file MPs, Cook rendered another great service to British political life. This was to show that these neglected footsoldiers could still count for something in an age of increasingly presidential government when Parliament has often appeared irrelevant. Cook showed it was still possible to lead national debates from the back bench. His causes were not confined to Iraq. This newspaper has particular reason to recall with gratitude his support for the introduction of proportional representation and for further British integration with Europe, for which we campaign.

Now that death has claimed him there will be talk of what might have lain in store if, as had been predicted, he had been brought back to high office under Gordon Brown. A return to the Foreign Office, where his record was mixed, apart from the success of the Kosovo war, would have seemed improbable. Cook the new home secretary may well have been the most likely option. Sadly, this is all speculation now. More pertinent than these historical "what ifs", is to ask where his death leaves the cause of the opposition to the Iraq war.

If Cook had a political flaw, it was that he was a loner. Unlike his rival, Brown, he was incapable of leading a party within a party. He formed no cabal of likeminded people around him. Some might say this reluctance to plot was a virtue, but it means he left no movement behind him and the danger is that, after the tributes are said, he will be forgotten. The ship of state will glide on and the waters will close over his memory. It is much to be hoped that that is not the case and that a sufficient number of people in Parliament and outside will take up his baton.

At the last election, Cook campaigned in several constituencies with large Muslim populations, bolstering support for the Labour Party among these alienated voters. He urged them to accept that, now we were immersed in Iraq, there was no option but to get on with it and try to secure a just peace there.

But he also championed the idea that if Britain set out a timetable for withdrawal, it would undercut suspicions that British talk of spreading democracy in Iraq masked imperialistic designs. If people seek a lasting memorial to the career of Robin Cook, it should be this: establish a clear timetable to withdraw from Iraq.