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No Sunshine for those who suck up

BILL CLINTON sloped off to Virginia on Thursday to talk about community policing, a subject more congenial than the allegations of perjury and adultery currently being aired before the Senate.

In Britain, neither Robin Cook nor Mick Jagger was so lucky, finding themselves called to account in that considerably more august arena, the front page of the Sun. The Foreign Secretary and the Rolling Stone are near-contemporaries, 52 and 55 respectively, although they do not have much else in common. But both men had their love lives catalogued in that tabloid last week, in lists headed "The extra-marital six who romped with cocky Cook" and, more succinctly in Mr Jagger's case, "Mick's Chicks".

The cases make for interesting comparisons, not just because Mr Cook's ex-lovers unaccountably fail to include a single Hungarian porn star or any sultry Italian beauties, two of Mr Jagger's strong suits. Mr Jagger featured as a "randy rocker" who "could not resist a beautiful woman", a sexual superman who "has bedded endless beauties from groupies to starstruck models during 35 years with the Stones". The model Carla Bruni said she was only one of 7,000 women to have slept with Mr Jagger, leaving readers in no doubt that the pop star is to be envied and admired.

Mr Cook, on the other hand, is a "love-cheat" who had "an incredible SIX LOVERS" during his marriage to his ex-wife Margaret, whose book is being serialised in the Sunday Times. In the circumstances, six seems a comparatively modest tally, even if you happen to think Mr Cook has conducted his private life foolishly, and in a way which always threatened to inflict maximum political damage if the details came to light. My purpose in drawing attention to the Sun's handling of these two tales of infidelity is not to defend Mr Cook, whose hasty exit from his marriage at Heathrow airport two summers ago, when the Prime Minister's press secretary Alastair Campbell told him his affair with his secretary was about to be exposed, revealed an unappealing side to his character.

What it does confirm is the folly of Tony Blair and his advisers, who have spent several years sucking up to the Sun and its proprietor in the belief that they could get the tabloid on-side. Remember the signed articles in the paper by Mr Blair and his chums; the exclusive apology for war crimes - brokered by Mr Campbell - from the Japanese prime minister to Sun readers? Or the robotic denunciations last year of Mary Bell by Mr Blair and Jack Straw, acting on instructions from the paper? Mr Cook himself was writing for it as recently as December, justifying air strikes against Saddam Hussein, only to find himself compared last week to "a garden gnome, a Popeye lookalike and even a prawn".

Mr Blair, Mr Campbell and their colleagues now find themselves in the same position as anyone who has ever tried to appease a school bully, handing over pocket money and new trainers with trembling hands, only to find that the torture gets worse. "In the past two months, Labour has been engulfed by so much scandal that the Tory party looks like a paragon of virtue," the paper's political correspondent crowed last week. Most humiliating of all for the Government, however, was a leader which ticked off Mr Blair but ended with support for Mr Cook, to whom it had given such a drubbing. Advising Mr Blair not to sack his Foreign Secretary, it questioned the veracity of the claims by Margaret Cook to which it devoted a double-page spread in the same issue - "the word of a woman scorned" - and praised the bombing of Iraq.

These are classic bully-boy tactics, beating victims within an inch of their lives and then helping them solicitously from the playground. Are Mr Blair and Mr Campbell sufficiently scared to put up with it? I think so, although I am no longer sure about Mr Cook. It is also worth pointing out that the Sun's attitude to sex amounts to little more than old-fashioned prurience, a lubricious display of fear and excitement at the prospect of someone having sex which is more usual among teenage boys than adults. Man has sex! Woman has sex! Man and woman have sex with each other! Hold the front page!

"Would YOU sleep with this man?" the Sun demanded last week, next to an unflattering photograph of Mr Cook. I am going to resist, at this point, the temptation to make personal observations about the paper's editor, David Yelland, with whom I had a spirited discussion at a party just before Christmas. (Handy tip to readers: if you find yourself in a social setting with Mr Yelland, a useful way to break the ice is to smile and say, "Hello, could you explain to me your paper's editorial policy on homo-sexuality?".)

But even Mr Cook's bitterest enemies, in a Government unusually prone to rivalries, can-not have taken much pleasure when the paper pilloried him on Monday. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis; and it is clear that Mr Murdoch's Greeks are no longer bearing gifts, but insults.