Tony's backing is all that Robin really needs

Private Lives, Public Affairs

Related Topics
The electorate's unconcern about the private lives of politicians, however humiliating and absurd, is one of the psephological wonders of modern times. It's what got Piers Merchant comfortably re-elected at Beckenham on 1 May when the uxorious but financially flaky Neil Hamilton was bundled out at Tatton. It's what justifies and sustains the awesome fightback that Bill and Hillary Clinton are waging from the White House. And it's what makes almost all of what is being written about the British Foreign Secretary in the papers gunning for him, from The Mirror to the Daily Mail, irrelevant to his future. But the fuss still matters. For what is happening here is a rather interesting trial of strength between large elements of the press - and a Conservative Party riding on its back - and Tony Blair. Much of the press is having a high old time. It would be foolish to pretend that the row has done the Government no harm in either the party or the country. Yet it seems to be the Prime Minister who has the glint in his eye.

Cook can be a difficult and prickly man at the best of times; and these are not the best of times, given the personal pressures caused by the break-up of his marriage. Although his relations with most officials have been significantly better than portrayed, he harbours enmities. He has frustrated his own civil servants by showing marked reluctance to meet his nearest Cabinet neighbour, Clare Short. His long-standing association with Gordon Brown is distinctly icy; he isn't clubbable - scarcely, if ever, visiting the bars and tearooms of the Commons.

Cook, moreover, didn't help himself by saying that Anne Bullen, his departed diary secretary, was "impossible to work with". There was, by all accounts, a culture clash, with Miss Bullen, for example, scarcely able to believe that John Monks (general secretary of the TUC) might interrupt a meeting to speak to her new boss on the day that the GCHQ ban on unions was lifted. Cook might, more gallantly, have said: "Look, Miss Bullen is an extremely efficient woman. But we didn't see eye to eye. It may well have been my fault as much as hers. But a Foreign Secretary can't have a diary secretary who he doesn't get on with." But then humility has never been the Foreign Secretary's strongest suit. There was some irritation among those designated by the Labour Party with the day-to-day struggle to secure the most favourable headlines possible that he did not put himself more fully in their charge. Finally, he may not yet be as good as Clinton - the acknowledged past master - at focusing relentlessly on the political at the expense of the personal.

But there is also an element among some of his critics of establishment disdain for the Foreign Secretary, a disdain compounded rather than mitigated by his cleverness. Some on the diplomatic circuit would have preferred someone who had a long record of pro-Europeanism, such as the much smoother Jack Cunningham, or one who was plugged into the foreign policy network while in opposition, such as George Robertson. By contrast Robin Cook is the first Labour Foreign Secretary to come from the left of the party. The foreign policy establishment is more used to those Foreign Secretaries - from Ernie Bevin to David Owen - who routinely enraged the party's left wing. Some of this friction with the establishment is mutual: addressing the Parliamentary Labour Party on Wednesday, Cook remarked in passing on the fact that there were no British ambassadors of Asian origin, and that he had been struck that of 15 teenagers whom he had met doing work experience in the FCO only one was from a state school.

All of this no doubt has helped to make Cook a target; but it didn't, of course, remotely bear on his ability to do his job to the Prime Minister's complete satisfaction. True, his start wasn't perfect. The goal of an ethical foreign policy has proved, as some of his colleagues recognised at the time it would, a lot easier to announce than to deliver. (Though the idea that he was somehow disqualified from having an ethical foreign policy because of problems in his private life, peddled this week in the hostile press, is seriously laughable. Tell that to the people of East Timor.) The transition from opposition to office may have been more difficult for Cook than for some of his colleagues. In opposition he was a star, but what he mostly did was simply to oppose. He moderated, in opposition, his own hostility to EMU. But he did not, as Gordon Brown did, have to undertake the heavy - and far from internally popular - duty of transforming an economic strategy that had helped to cost the party three successive elections. But the handsome plaudits from Blair since the election for Cook's handling of his relations with his European counterparts, his management of the EU foreign affairs council last Monday, his unusually close working relationship with the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, his intellectual and political grasp of the brief, have all been genuine.

So Blair thinks Cook is doing an excellent job. Nor was there anything eccentric about wanting to replace a diary secretary with someone who had done the same job with manifest competence in opposition. Several other Cabinet ministers - Blair included - have done the same. He didn't appoint Ms Regan, in the end, because they were having an affair. He continues to deny that he was forced by the Civil Service to change his mind. Even if it had done so, the only thing about the episode that would baffle other European leaders was that he was too fastidious to overrule it. But none of this is really the point. Blair came into office determined not to do as Major did and let the press decide on who should and shouldn't be in his Cabinet. There may be a process of re-education going on here. British voters elect Foreign Secretaries to represent their interests abroad, not to be perfectly formed personalities in their private lives. Blair appears ready to have his doctrine of ignoring the trivially personal tested to destruction. If he stays the course, there could be long-lasting effects. Perhaps it's too optimistic to think so; but in the long run the fewer scalps that get taken, the fewer lynch parties there may be.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: QA Technician

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer of re...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, an experienced and hig...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 per annum + commission: SThree: Sthree have an exciting opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Plumbing & Heating / Bathroom Trade Counter Sales

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established London ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Children shouldn’t even know the word 'diet' — obesity and lack of body confidence are symptoms of the same cause

Natasha Devon
Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Deadmau5, Kanye West and Jay-Z at the Tidal launch event in New York  

Tidal: An overpriced music streaming service that only benefits the super-rich members of a messianic-like cult? Where do I sign up??

Michael Segalov
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat