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 You are in:  Special Report: 1998: 05/98: Arms to Africa row
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Tuesday, 12 May, 1998, 14:15 GMT 15:15 UK
Cook's troubled year
By BBC News Online's Nick Assinder

When Robin Cook strode into the Foreign Office just 12 months ago, the world appeared to be his for the taking.

He came to the job armed with the reputation as one of Tony Blair's most able front-benchers and plans for a groundbreaking "ethical" foreign policy in his back pocket.

Robin Cook addressing the House of Commons
A prolific speaker in Parliament
Mr Cook was representing a government with a massive Commons majority, and all the power and influence that implies. He was clearly planning a new era for Britain on the diplomatic stage.

In fact, it was his harrying of the last Tory government over, among other things, the arms-to-Iraq affair that helped propel Mr Blair into Downing Street.

But now, as the Labour government celebrates its first anniversary, Mr Cook's future is looking far from rosy and he is the one being harried by his Tory shadow, Michael Howard.

It all started to go wrong for Mr Cook last summer when he travelled to India and Pakistan with the Queen to help mark the 50th anniversary of the end of British rule.

In off-the-record comments, the foreign secretary suggested Britain was willing to help mediate in any Indo-Pakistani negotiations over Kashmir.

The remarks sparked outrage in Delhi and saw Mr Cook accused of meddling in the internal affairs of a foreign country.

The prime minister and even the Queen were dragged into the affair. What should have been an easy-going tour turned into a public relations disaster.

Princess Diana inspecting landmines
Diana: A worldwide ban on mines
Shortly afterwards, Mr Cook was in hot water again - this time being accused of keeping Princess Diana waiting for a meeting about her campaign against landmines.

This was swiftly followed by the first major challenge to his ethical foreign policy when he sanctioned the sale of 16 Hawk jet fighters to Indonesia.

Campaigners claim the aircraft are regularly used against the people of East Timor. They were furious when Labour refused to stop the sale. But Mr Cook insisted he did not have the power to revoke contracts that had already been made.

But probably the greatest embarrassment came when he was forced to admit to an affair with his secretary Gaynor Regan just hours before a Sunday newspaper was about to reveal details of the affair.

Portrait of Margaret Cook
Margaret Cook
He confessed to his wife, Margaret, and said he wanted a divorce after a phone call from Downing Street.

To make matters worse, it later emerged that he had sacked his diary secretary Anne Bullen - whom he described as "impossible to work with" - and briefly considered giving the job to his lover before their affair was public.

Robin Cook and Gaynor together
Gaynor: Cook's newly wedded wife
He eventually married his mistress in a secret ceremony in April. His wife has given a series of critical interviews which have further embarrassed both Mr Cook and Downing Street.

Finally, before the latest row, the foreign secretary was caught in the centre of a diplomatic incident after he visited a Jewish settlement on the highly sensitive West Bank during a visit to Israel.

The furore saw him mobbed by angry protestors and snubbed by the Israeli government which cancelled an official dinner with him.

Former Tory foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind suggested at the time that Mr Cook did not have the right personality to handle a sensitive diplomatic brief.

Now there's Sierra Leone and Mr Cook has been forced to offer his resignation if any blame is attached to him for the affair.

The prime minister has always stood by him and, brushing aside the latest row as "hoo-ha", once again praised him for doing a brilliant job.

Amid the turmoil are dark suggestions that there may be a conspiracy amongst some FCO officials to "get Cook." Friends previously suggested it was someone inside the FCO that had leaked details of his affair, partly because they were fed up with his haughty style and near-flouting of his mistress.

Now it is suggested the same conspirators are at work behind the Sierra Leone row and are looking for a ministerial head - preferably his.

While he is blaming officials for not informing him or his ministers about the affair, they are claiming it is inconceivable they would follow such a policy without referring it upwards.

The conspiracy theories may be a little difficult to take at face value, but one thing is certain, Robin Cook is now on the back foot.

Critics claim that, even if he was unaware of the plans to help the coup in Sierra Leone, that only proves he is either lax in reading his official briefs or, worse, not in control of his own department.

Either way, the foreign secretary has been left in a dramatically weakened position and his image of infallibility has been permanently tarnished.

Links to more Arms to Africa row stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to more Arms to Africa row stories