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Monday, February 2, 1998 Published at 11:35 GMT



UK: Politics

Cook to stay home while Blair goes to Washington

With the political tempo slowing further the main interest this week will be in the Prime Minister's visit to the beleaguered President Clinton and in the further problems of the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook as the Tories seek to exploit his difficulties over his sacked former diary secretary with a special Commons debate on Wednesday.

The Prime Minister is not taking his Foreign Secretary with him to Washington despite the growing problems with Saddam Hussein. Instead he is putting the focus on tackling crime and is being accompanied by Home Secretary Jack Straw.

Blair in Washington

Normally British Prime Ministers visit Washington hoping that a little of the glamour of the world's most powerful man will rub off on them. On this occasion the President, despite his continued high opinion poll ratings, may be glad to have the support of a new British Prime Minister with a squeaky clean image as he struggles to extricate himself from the allegations of sexual scandal. Mr Blair will also be welcome as America's staunchest military ally with another crisis looming over Iraq.

Margaret Thatcher used to enjoy a special personal chemistry with Ronald Reagan and she used to visit America to recharge her ideological batteries. Tony Blair, who first visited the Clinton campaign team five years ago and who imported many lessons into British politics, gets on well with Bill Clinton and they are planning on this occasion to have the odd brainstorming session discussing the future of Centre-Left politics.

In addition Mr Blair, who will be hosting the G8 Summit in Birmingham later this year, will seek to make the tackling of international crime a theme both of his visit and of the G8 discussions to come.

There will be a visit to Camp David as well as the discussions in the White House with an intensive programme also involving the Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper with the Blairs. But Mr Blair's problem will be getting the media focus onto issues like Iraq, Nato and Northern Ireland and off the President's personal life.

Robin Cook

There have been fulsome words of praise from Tony Blair for Robin Cook's stewardship of the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister's Press Secretary has furiously attacked the media for peddling trivia as well as lambasting the Tories for "taking the tabloid agenda" and having nothing to say on policy.

After John Major's experience fronting a government with a small and declining majority which was a particular prey to the tabloids, they are determined not to have ministers hounded out of office by media campaigns.

But there is irritation in Downing Street and in the Cabinet at Robin Cook's continued capacity for drawing the wrong kind of headlines and for deflecting attention from policy issues. Mr Cook is criticised by colleagues for the way he has handled the issue, notably for attacking his former diary secretary as "impossible to work with" at a European Union press conference, for releasing a private (and anyway rather ambiguous letter ) from Diana, Princess of Wales to seek to refute allegations he kept her waiting for a meeting and for ultimately having to admit that he had talked to the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office about the possibility of replacing Anne Bullen, the diary secretary he had sacked, with Gaynor Regan, without at that stage revealing that Ms Regan was his mistress.

There is no serious talk at any level which matters about Mr Cook having to resign but there is no doubt he has damaged himself and raised questions that were never there in the past about his political judgment. "How would he react in a real crisis?" some MPs inquire. He has also built up resentment among some in his department, where, ironically, he has achieved a reputation for frequently being late for meetings.

Although Buckingham Palace stepped in to scotch stories that the Queen had felt let down by Mr Cook flying home for a few days from her trip to India and Pakistan, there has been constituency criticism of Mr Cook over the revelations that he did so for business that was less than pressing. And the constant attention to the issue of ministers taking spouses, partners or mistresses abroad with them at the the taxpayers' expense has done little to help the government's image and has given the Tories a bone on which to chew, even if the Government has been able to produce figures to show that it is not spending any more on refurbishing ministers offices, throwing parties or junketing with partners abroad than the Tories did themselves in office.

Although the Prime Minister told MPs that Mr Cook had done nothing wrong over the sacking of Anne Bullen and that she had been replaced at the end of her contract, that begged the question of the payout to Miss Bullen at the end of June when her contract ran until November. The Conservatives have continued to worry at that question too but their case has been weakened by the fact that Miss Bullen's appointment was not an ordinary civil service one but one which resulted from string-pulling by a former Tory Foreign Secretary and by stories that she is helping Conservative Central Office out of personal revenge.






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