PROFILE: Robin Cook A fighter who doesn't back losers

Labour's Scott specialist relishes hard work and the chance to attack; He has never thought of Opposition as anything but the poorest substitute for power;
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The Independent Online
Before the Tories congratulate themselves too heartily this weekend for having escaped intact from the Scott report, they should consider a fact little known outside the Scottish racing fraternity: if you had pounds 10 on each of the five winners tipped in Robin Cook's weekly racing column in the Glasgow Herald last Saturday, you would have won pounds 90. The man trying to harry William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell into resignation is not one who enjoys backing losers, whether in politics or in his principal outside passion: horses - riding them and watching them race.

Scott is an assignment tailor-made for Cook - no one, since he was a self-confessed "school swot" at Edinburgh's fiercely academic Royal High, has ever accused him of being frightened of hard work or detail. He is the Labour front bench's most consistently dangerous parliamentary performer. It is difficult, therefore, to imagine anybody who could have made a better fist of three hours in a sterile DTI office careering through the five daunting volumes of Sir Richard's report on Thursday and then turning it on the Government. Cook is so good at opposition that he has evoked over the past decade two quite different reactions from his Tory counterparts. The weaker fear him. But at least one Cabinet minister remarked recently that he wished Cook was his shadow because it would raise the profile of his department and help secure more money from the Treasury - a function which Cook performed as Shadow Health Secretary.

Indeed, he is such an accomplished oppositionist that it has become quite difficult to imagine him in a government job in which he is not permanently on the attack ... such as Foreign Secretary. But that would be to understimate him quite seriously. It is not just that in little matters of style - like his precision about not letting meetings overrun or meander - his professionalism is already ministerial. It is not just that he actually seems to relish being under attack himself, as his colleagues have found in the last few days of political dogfighting. It is more that as a conviction politician of the left, he has never thought of opposition as anything but the poorest substitute for power.

Cook was originally going to be a Presbyterian minister; but he lost his faith at 19, drawn away from the austerity of the Church of Scotland by the swinging Sixties. But the Labour Party became something of a substitute; he gave up his PhD on the Victorian novel to throw himself into political activity and fought and lost his first seat at the age of 24. After a spell as a teacher, and as a member along with Malcolm Rifkind of Edinburgh City Council, he came into parliament in 1974.

Since then he has changed his mind from time to time. His support for electoral reform has been consistent - and he has a moderniser's passion for pluralism; it was Cook's tactically acute idea to team up with his Liberal Democrat counterpart, Menzies Campbell, over Scott yesterday. But he is now converted to Scottish devolution - despite opposing it in the Seventies. It is no secret that he originally thought Tony Blair was mistaken to dismantle Clause IV; he subsequently not only admitted he was wrong but made a closely argued speech in favour of change which was influential in bringing the left of the party behind the new clause.

But he has real core beliefs - and quite famously not all of them are identical with those of Gordon Brown, his fellow Edinburgh University student, one-time friend, and co-editor in the Seventies of a book about poverty and deprivation in Scotland. By instinct Cook is an unreconstructed Keynsian. He is much too sophisticated to foment needless internal strife in the run-up to an election - and he was blameless for leaks identifying him as having strongly protested against Brown's plans to deny benefit to under-25s who refused training places. But the leaks were true.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that he did not initially want to be Shadow Foreign Secretary and lose a central economic portfolio. The appointment was made on the understanding that he would retain responsibility for Scott. But he has set about the foreign affairs job with his usual thoroughness. And post election, it will be high profile indeed; the Hong Kong takeover, tensions within Europe: all will come to the head in the first year of the new government. The old gibes about his face not suiting television seem strangely obsolete; expect to see a lot of him on screen. Anyway, private pollingshows that the public note his cleverness as much as what he once wryly called his absence of "classic good looks".

Cook can be brusque and a little imperious in his dealings with staff and colleagues - though the Blair office have found him a "joy to work with" over Scott. An only child, he is also something of a politicial loner. He was close to John Smith, and was "gutted" first and foremost by his death, but secondly by judging he did not have enough support to go for the leadership himself. But he has hinterland. He tries to ride, often with his wife, a consultant haematologist, every weekend. He is a passionate deer-watcher, drawn year after year to his beloved New Forest.

He is not part of the metropolitan modernising tribe round Blair, though in some ways he is very much a moderniser, especially on constitutional matters. But Blair has ensured that he is in the inner circle of senior shadow ministers and he offers valuable qualities. One is an ability to help Blair reach more of the left than the leader might alone and to represent that constituency to the leader. The other is his combative skill as frontline politician - evident in the current streetfighting over Scott. It is a cordial relationship which suits both men.

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