Profile: Robin Cook: Left to sort out the world Just the world to sort out

He is known for brains, not charm. Stephen Castle on the Foreign Secretary and his ambitions
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The Independent Online
Robin Cook has yet to visit Chevening, the grace and favour home beloved of Conservative foreign secretaries, and he will certainly not have time this weekend. Today Cook begins a lightening visit to the United States, returning for Tuesday's meeting of European foreign ministers in the Hague and a chat with the Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. Then on Friday it will be off to Noordwijk for another Euro gathering. That comes hard on the heels of last week's Foreign Office mission statement, one of the most distinctive foreign policy pronouncements for decades - complete with David Puttnam video.

In two frantic weeks Cook has started to reshape relations with Europe, announced an international initiative to combat the sale of landmines, spoken out against the arms trade, promoted human rights and the environment, and ended the ban on trade unionists at GCHQ. A whirlwind has swept through the interior of Whitehall's grandest department, too. In Mr Cook's office (large enough to accommodate three double-decker buses, as David Owen, a previous Labour incumbent, pointed out), leather-bound copies of 1960s Hansards have made way for reference books. Mr Cook has not yet had time to replace the massive colonial portrait that dominates the room, but he has made one symbolic change: out has gone the bust of Charles James Fox, in has come one of Ernest Bevin, the trade unionist and Foreign Secretary who helped broker the post-war international settlement. But why the haste, and will it all help Cook become as big a figure in Tony Blair's Cabinet as Bevin was in Attlee's?

BORN in Lanarkshire in 1946, Robin Cook's upbringing was of a comfortable post-war variety. His father was a chemistry teacher who, though not ideological, supported Labour perhaps because his father and brother were miners. At Aberdeen Royal Grammar School and then the Royal High School in Edinburgh Robin was a swot. Physically small and an only child, he became dedicated to studying. While others were playing football the teenage Cook was buying the New Statesman. Although he describes his childhood as very happy he does not hide the fact that, as a teacher's son, he had a certain amount to live up to - the more so since he was taught by his father. At least once he has sat at the Shadow Cabinet table counting up the above-average number of colleagues who are only children, pondering whether this is coincidental. The tag of the "loner", which Cook rejects, has been difficult to shed and those who knew him earlier in life describe him as "serious", good company among friends but hardly one of the heavy drinking crowd.

Cook read English at Edinburgh University, going on to start a doctorate on the Victorian novel. He had intended to become a Presbyterian minister, but lost his faith, exchanging it for a commitment to the Labour Party fostered in the local Edinburgh party, rather than the university debating chamber.

At university he met his wife, Margaret, then a medical student and now a consultant haematologist. Cook, who has two grown-up sons, has kept his family out of the limelight. Margaret has a full-time career and only a limited interest in politics, and is based firmly at the family's home outside Edinburgh where Robin weekends. As one ally put it: "She is not the sort of person to want to take her holidays in Blackpool watching Robin perform at fringe meetings." The family, though used to seeing nothing of Robin in the week, is still close; the sons were academically successful and have embarked on good careers. The Cooks recently went en famille white-water-rafting in Canada.

After university Cook became a teacher, first at a comprehensive school then for the Workers' Education Association. At 23 Cook fought and lost a council election against the Duke of Buccleuch, whose policy platform was that council housing sapped the moral fibre of tenants. But a year later, in 1971, he was on Edinburgh council where he rapidly made his mark and learnt some of the tricks of the trade. Even then Cook was a formidable operator and deal-maker enlisting the support of a conservative- inclined "Progressive" councillor who wanted to be a baillie (magistrate) but had not been put up by his side; in exchange for Labour's backing, he voted for Cook as housing committee chairman. It turned out to be a formative period, when Cook was in charge of the fate of tens of thousands of tenants. One of his main contributions was to modernise, rather than bulldoze, areas of slums. He still gains pleasure from visiting streets salvaged by his decisions. On his 28th birthday, in 1974, Cook was elected to parliament for the seat of Edinburgh South which he represented until the safer Livingston seat was created ahead of the 1983 election.

Cook's election to the new seat coincided with a crushing general election defeat for Labour and one that provoked a rethink of key policies. Cook had been against entry into the EEC and an opponent of Scottish devolution, helping organise the "no" campaign. Post-1983 he concluded that Britain's place in Europe would, by the next election, be irreversible. The re-election of a Conservative government, with Scotland voting the opposite way, persuaded him of the need for a parliament north of the border.

He managed Neil Kinnock's leadership election and held a succession of front-bench and shadow cabinet posts, including Treasury, Europe and Health. When his friend from Edinburgh, John Smith, died in 1994, Cook considered standing as leader of the centre-left but decided against when the force of the Blair bandwagon became apparent.

The relationship with Tony Blair is good, but few pretend that the Foreign Secretary is a shining symbol of "New Labour". His language is too leftish, for one thing. At last year's Scottish Trades Union Congress Cook pointedly called on Labour to "speak for the poor", adding: "We must do it because our values of equality and community make us the party of social solidarity." He has been spotted at meetings of a group of Labour MPs called "What's left?", the successor to the Tribune Group, and allies see him as a socialist first and a pragmatist second.

He worries about the party neglecting its core supporters and believes Labour must be wary of entering another period like the 1960s (his formative political years) when many on the left moved from a Labour in government to spawn a mass of ultra-left groupings.

Yet neither does Cook neatly fit into the "old Labour" category, committed as he is to proportional representation at Westminster and pluralism in politics. It was Cook, for example, who took risks by leading pre-election negotiations with the Liberal Democrats over a joint constitutional package of reforms. Even in the early hours of 2 May, when the scale of Labour's victory became clear, he was insisting to MPs that the referendum pledge on proportional representation would have to be honoured quickly.

Yet what really marks him out from most of his Cabinet colleagues is his forensic intelligence and savage debating skills, used to raise the profile of each of his opposition portfolios. Shunted, against his will, from his opposition trade and industry post into the foreign affairs brief, he still came up trumps, astutely taking with him responsibility for the Scott inquiry. On the day of the report's publication Cook was allowed only two hours, locked in a Whitehall office, to study an advance copy before his Commons speech. Typically, he knew the brief well enough to fillet the massive document in the time allotted, and slot the required quotes into a prepared speech. In fact his virtuoso Commons performance had been rehearsed the night before with his whip, Peter Hain.

Cook has moved quickly to define his role in a new political world. His pronouncements are aimed at the public and party members rather than the ambassadorial cocktail party circuit. His aims are to make the Foreign Office a big player on the domestic front, embracing issues such as the environment, defence and exports, and to strike a chord on the left. Having raised expectations, for example over the feasibility of an ethical arms export policy, Cook will be under pressure to deliver. But he is, according to one senior Labour source, the "natural person to lead a large section of the party" and, on the current evidence, intends to remain so. This has been achieved by careful positioning and brilliant parliamentary performance, rather than cultivating MPs. He is respected but not universally loved. Some colleagues see him as cold or too clever by half.

"He is personally very shy and, perhaps because he is so brainy, his interpersonal skills are not brilliant," says one fan. And, unlike some politicians, he has outside interests, such as riding (he is a racing columnist for a newspaper). He enjoys food and drink.

AND then there is the spiky relationship with his main Cabinet rival, the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, a sparring partner since Edinburgh days when they were on the opposite sides of the devolution debate. This is pivotal to the success of the new government. It has long been rumoured that Cook wants the Treasury for himself although, intriguingly, the Foreign Secretary refuses to rule out the possibility that he might take a leading role in the Scottish parliament when it is established. Although they have clashed in opposition Messrs Cook and Brown have a working relationship and, on the day of the Queen's Speech, they were spotted side by side in the Lords chamber in friendly conversation - a sign, some think, of a rapprochement. The other side of the coin is that the only government department which has rivalled the Foreign Office for space on the front pages since the election is Brown's Treasury. Competition for headlines could be a precursor of flashpoints to come.

Not long before the general election one Labour moderniser scoffed at the idea that Cook would be a central player in a Labour government. He would be "either in the VIP lounge at Heathrow airport, or jet-lagged or both", he said. That judgement now looks off-beam. As one ally said, "Robin has proved that the idea that he will disappear as Foreign Secretary, floating across the world while other movers and shakers get on with the real decision-making, is just not on."