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Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 12:03 GMT
Robin Cook: Foreign Secretary

Mark Mardell

The reputation and dignity of Robin Cook were badly damaged soon after Labour took power.

That is why he has become so trusted by Downing Street.

In opposition, Mr Cook was Labour's deadliest debater - a kingmaker who was campaign manager both for John Smith and Tony Blair, a private critic of both Gordon Brown and his New Labour economics.

pic of Gordon brown
Brown is Cook's oldest enemy

In short a potentially very dangerous man.

So being slightly damaged goods in power, dependent on the prime minister's favour, has let him get on with the job without indulging in internal politics.

His rough ride began as the press mocked his vaunted "ethical foreign policy", which was at odds with their understanding of a traditional foreign policy: Britain's interests first, second and third and devil take the morality of the thing.


Mr Cook is in danger of becoming Labour's patron saint of lost causes.

It was all too easy to find examples of arms sales that had gone through or dictators who had been consorted with.

Then there were a couple of alleged gaffes - that may have been nothing of the sort - one on a trip to India and another in Israel.

High-profile divorce

But what really damaged Mr Cook was the messy end of his marriage and his relationship with his secretary.

Robin Cook and Gaynor Regan
Robin Cook married his secretary, Gaynor Regan, three months after affair was revealed

It has been suggested that Tony Blair's press spokesman gave him minutes, in a hurried phone call, to choose between the two women.

About to go on holiday with his wife, Mr Cook chose the secretary, told his wife and left. She was understandably bitter and let her anger show in the press.

Mr Cook has subsequently married his secretary and friends say he is deliriously happy, but the damage had been done.


What really damaged Mr Cook was the messy end of his marriage and his relationship with his secretary

Mr Cook has never been one to underestimate his own worth and this tendency has not been checked in the rather grand surrounds of the Foreign Office. He clearly enjoys his job and its trappings.

But the sharp mind that once skewered Tory ministers is now applied to the thickets of EU negotiations and the even trickier decisions that were needed during the Kosovo conflict.

Ministers who have no track record of praising Mr Cook say Tony Blair knows that he can safely leave the trickiest negotiations to his foreign secretary.

Loyal to colleagues

While the spin machines around some ministers work overtime Robin Cook, once in the forefront of any plotting, has been extremely careful to avoid any charge of undermining other ministers.

His closest colleagues say they never hear a whisper of it in private and, whether or not that is true, you rarely if ever hear of "friends of Mr Cook" having a go at colleagues.


Many of his allies expect him to still be foreign secretary if there's a Labour victory

There is another paradox here. Mr Cook is in danger of becoming Labour's patron saint of lost causes.

Proportional representation is deeply unpopular within the party, while Mr Cook has long backed it.

He is a fan of co-operation with the Liberal Democrats and did much to forge closer contacts with them. Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats feel too cosy at the moment.

And despite grave reservations in opposition he is now perhaps the cabinet's greatest enthusiast for the euro and for an early referendum, while the greatest powers in the land are showing extreme caution for fear of frightening the electorate.

euro notes
Cook is now perhaps the cabinet's greatest enthusiast for the euro

Battle for the euro

Many of his allies expect him still to be foreign secretary if there is a Labour victory.

The other job touted is that of "Lord of the Isles", a secretary of state for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions.

The paradox is that his intellectual departure from the cabinet consensus may ensure his survival in that body.

If Labour wins the election and Mr Cook is in the cabinet it will be interesting to see if these disagreements emerge.

But if he was on the backbenches any departures from the script could be devastating rather than merely interesting.

Gordon Brown's old enemy is still ready to do battle for the euro.

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Related stories:

12 May 98 |  Arms to Africa row
Cook's troubled year
12 Nov 98 |  UK Politics
Cook denies 'ethical foreign policy'
10 Mar 01 |  UK Politics
Cook accused of misleading MPs
07 Jul 00 |  UK Politics
Cook: Euro entry 'inevitable'

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