Lover man's lesson is: reform Parliament

Cook's sex life

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Should Robin Cook be forced to resign his job as Foreign Secretary because he had affairs during his marriage? Of course not. Will he be less able to perform effectively because he has left his wife to move in with his secretary, whom he has now said he intends to marry? I can't see how.

Is his political position being seriously undermined because his wife has made one or two well-chosen remarks about the size of his ego? Hardly.

Let those who have led entirely blameless and monogamous lives tell us that he is unfit for the job. The rest of us may well gasp with amazement that the man who was considered too ugly to become leader of the Labour Party has become an object of lust for goodness knows how many women. The man least likely to is always the man most likely to ... given the opportunity.

The programme Westminster Women by Linda McDougal is full of tales from female MPs and the wives of MPs which explain exactly how those opportunities arise: long separations between husbands and wives, mothers stuck at home bringing up children while fathers do their important business in the House. Long, lonely hours hanging around with little to do except have a drink with that researcher who has been paying you a lot of attention lately.

One of the saddest things about the Cook affair has been the way that Margaret Cook has blamed herself. She was too busy as a consultant haematologist to spend enough time with her husband. Does he now lie awake at night wondering if it was his ambition that destroyed their marriage?

I don't think Cook's private life makes him unfit for public office, but it does undoubtedly diminish him. He may be the cleverest of them, all flashing his big brain all over the place, flaunting his grasp of detail in debates but when it comes down to it he is but another serial adulterer. What upsets me is the lack of imagination of such men. They are not guided by passion but by proximity. They do not seek a particular women in favour of their wives: the nearest one will do. As the nearest one is usually the secretary then the secretary it will be. A relationship of dominance and subordination is already in place which is more than convenient. Now that we know Cook for all his intellect has opted to be such a cliche, our respect inevitably wains.

Like many women I suspect I have been as impressed by Margaret Cook as I have been depressed by her husband. She has been calm, poised, articulate. Her jibes about male emotional immaturity and selfishness will have struck a chord: "It's selfish that men should expect it all. They are quite capable of sweeping the floor, sending Christmas cards, buying birthday presents - they are quite capable, they don't have to have it all, they just like to have it all".

Here in these trivial domestic details Margaret Cook hits at the roots of the problem. Men hold on to power because it suits them and they will not give it up voluntarily. Why should they? Equality will not come about by just hoping that men will become nicer - the message of much of the new feminism - it will only come about through strategic organisation.

Many of the women interviewed in Westminster Women talk about how getting more women into Parliament will change the agenda. Clare Short reminds us that when she once talked of having a House full of women of different ages, colours and backgrounds, every one just laughed. As a result of her and others' work on shortlists this has now happened and the Labour Party is now pretending that it always supported such an idea. This debate has been overshadowed by the sniggering about the break-up of the Cook marriage and by the ridiculous denials issued by the spin doctors about what really took place. It looks as if more pressure has been applied to Margaret Cook over the comments she made to McDougal for she has not denied the substance of hem.

The insensitive handling of the break-up, with a sense of the closing of ranks of senior men around Cook, only adds to the feeling that for all the Blairite pro-family dogmas, at the end of the day wives are disposable items. Once again the culture of politics as it is lived appears unchanging and fundamentally cruel to those whose are not directly involved. That, rather than Cook's new-found reputation as a lover man, is a public issue and it is in the public interest that we continue to talk about it.

It never really mattered if Cook and lover moved in together. It does matter however if a political career means that inevitable damage will be caused to one's loved ones. It matters even more if a system is set up in which private misery is considered part of the sacrifice that spouses and children of politicians have to make. The rigid separation between the personal and the political has sustained up until now a system that works to the advantage of men. As long as their personal lives are contained elsewhere they can get on with what they want to. Women's personal lives are messier, less confinable.

Diane Abbott's famous story about taking her baby into the lobby and being told that "strangers aren't allowed in the lobby" while David Blunkett's dog was let in makes this point nicely.

Reforming this decrepit institution to make it possible for politicians to have lives outside it as well as within it will not stop adultery. One cannot legislate against that lethal combination, so prevalent in political life, of desperation, stupidity and boredom. But one can strive towards an environment that promotes more equal partnerships between men and women both in the House and out of it. The unhappy fact remains that there will always be men who don't actually want equal partnerships with women. If Robin Cook falls into this category then regardless of his public success one can't help regard him as something of a failure.

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