Scotland's New Leader: Cook or Dewar - Which will be First Minister?

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On his recent visit to Budapest, Robin Cook publicly said twice that he looked forward to returning one day as the Foreign Secretary of one EU member state visiting another EU member state. On the face of it, this was a polite but unremarkable piece of diplomatic orthodoxy: giving a welcome push to Hungary's desire to join an enlarged European Community. To the augurs of Scottish politics, however, it is pregnant with significance. For if Cook meant what he said, he must finally have ruled out the prospect of him becoming the first First Minister of Scotland. On no possible timetable of EU enlargement could Hungary join the EU before Cook would, if he chose to make his career in Scotland, have to take a seat in the new Scottish parliament, forsake the Foreign Secretaryship, and stand for the top job in Edinburgh.

But did he mean what he said in Budapest? Last weekend, Scotland on Sunday set pulses racing with a story suggesting that Cook and Donald Dewar, Scottish Secretary, and hitherto the man most frequently tipped to head the new Scottish executive, had reached a tentative and informal deal - a version of the famous Granita pact under which Gordon Brown abandoned his leadership ambitions in favour of Tony Blair. Allegedly Dewar would stand aside, perhaps seeking instead the speakership of the new Scottish parliament, and allow Cook a clear run at the First Ministership. Liberated from the shackles of collective cabinet responsibility, and from a punishing travel schedule which inevitably removes him from the forefront of domestic politics, the most articulate figure on the neo-Keynesian left in British politics would thus become the most powerful man in Scotland. He would be free at last to put some of his economic and social ideas into practice: socialism in one country. And the ever-modest Dewar would withdraw to relative obscurity, confident of his place in history as the chief architect of the transforming devolution Bill, which he published yesterday and will triumphantly pilot through the Commons next year.

Certainly, such a course would have great attractions for Cook. He shows every sign of enjoying being Foreign Secretary and Tony Blair is said to be among those who regard him as a conspicuous success in the job, particularly in European negotiations. But before he was made shadow Foreign Secretary by Blair and applied himself to the job with all the diligence of the precocious schoolboy swat he once was, Cook's principal interests were all in domestic politics. And it's difficult to see, as long as Blair remains Prime Minister, what Cook's next career move could be in London. It's scarcely possible at present to imagine Brown vacating the Chancellorship. But even if it wasn't, Cook himself probably accepts deep down that, however well qualified he may be intellectually to go to the Treasury, he would be ideologically unsuitable to do the job in a Blair administration. The Home Office is already pretty well precluded, given that he is a Scottish MP and that the Home Office's writ is mainly confined to England and Wales. It would certainly be so once the Scottish Parliament was in being. This leaves only the sort of cabinet jobs that after the Foreign Office would seem a bit of a let-down, and beside which the First Ministership of Scotland might be a truly thrilling prospect.

So last weekend's story has a superficial plausibility. Cook has not finally made up his mind whether he wants the job; he will no doubt be thinking about it over Christmas. And it's theoretically conceivable that Dewar would stand aside for him. But don't bank on it. First the strength of Dewar's own claim on the job should not be overlooked. From Blair's point of view he would be an ideal choice. Everything Dewar has said over the past couple of years suggests an anxiety to ensure that the Scottish Parliament beds down with a minimum of friction with the UK administration. For all his brilliance Cook might be less, well, predictable. To take just one example, it's easier to imagine Cook chafing at the Labour Party ordinance against use, in the first term of the new parliament, of its tax-raising powers.

Secondly there would be something highly appropriate about Dewar, happier in politics than he has ever been, becoming the first incumbent of a job that he has been so proud as Scottish Secretary to create. Thirdly - though this is a point that will irritate supporters of a Cook First Ministership - Dewar has believed in the Scottish Parliament throughout his political career. By contrast Cook is a (relative) late-comer to the cause of the Scottish parliament, having been a prominent opponent in the 1979 referendum, and having only become a convert after the 1983 general election when Labour slumped to its worst post-war defeat despite success in Scotland. Finally, there is no sign whatever that Dewar has remotely lost interest in taking the job - rather the reverse. Nor is there any reason why, at only 60, he should.

In theory, the First Ministership need not be decided until after the Scottish Parliament elections in May 1999. Formally it is the new parliament that elects the First Minister. Yesterday, briefing on the Bill in London, the Scottish Office minister Henry Macleish declined to confirm absolutely that Labour would enter those elections with a clear candidate for the job at its head. But all the other parties will have leaders; it would be an unthinkably severe handicap for Labour, virtually certain to become the biggest single party, not to be led at the elections by one clear candidate for the top job. And in any case, Cook would have to decide by the middle of next year whether to stand for the Scottish Parliament. He is nine years younger than Dewar; he could yet stand as the second First Minister. These are deep waters: it is unlikely that Cook has yet altogether ruled out the possibility of standing against his old adversary Brown for the UK Prime Ministership in the hugely unlikely event of Tony Blair suddenly bowing out. Easily the best guess is that Cook told the Hungarians the truth.