The New Statesman Interview - Robin Cook

The Leader of the Commons reveals plans to curb the power of the party machines and give a new deal

The further down the road they travel, the more politicians contemplate their place in history. Robin Cook will turn 56 next month, an elder statesman and veteran of many a battle in the Labour Party. The jury is out, to say the least, on his four-year tenure at the Foreign Office, which was unceremoniously terminated by Tony Blair after the election last June. The job Cook was given, Leader of the Commons, was a passport to bowing out quietly. But this, he told me, he will not do. He is determined, after all the brickbats and humiliations, to put his side of the story.

This self-styled champion of the left in the 1980s became the self-styled champion of ethics in foreign policy in the 1990s. He has now repositioned himself as the champion of parliament. Each change came against his will. He would have liked to stay in domestic politics but, on taking office in 1994, Blair thought he and Gordon Brown would fight too much over the economy. In 2001, he would have liked to continue bestriding the world stage, but Blair thought he and Brown were fighting too much over Europe.

So he is making the best of it, and wants to ensure that both the Commons and the Lords undergo fundamental reform by the next election. The lower house is the easy bit. New working hours have been agreed. The next big decision is the role of select committees. The report of the modernisation committee that has been looking into this is due to be published in February. Cook revealed what its most important recommendation will be: in future, the whips' office will have no say in the composition of select committees. In Labour's case, an initial list of nominees would be drawn up by its parliamentary committee - a group of senior Labour MPs that is elected by the whole Parliamentary Labour Party. Then that list would be submitted to the PLP for ratification.

"The process should be open, transparent and fair, to make sure that nobody is discriminated against," Cook says. Nominations should be "beyond the influence of party machines. All nominees to select committees will be submitted to the PLP and will be amendable and votable." He expects other parties to follow suit.

As for who should be in charge of each committee, "there is a school of thought that the choice of chair is likely to be most independent if it is actually left to each committee". The promise, then, is of no more nobbling. If the changes do come about as Cook wants, it would mark a shift in the balance between executive and legislature - not a huge one, but a start.

It might also change the priorities of new MPs, who have long been schooled to believe that any old job in government is preferable to scrutinising legislation. "The more effective we can make the role of people as legislators, the more happy they will be to remain as legislators," Cook says.

A few days before we met, Cook led the government side in a Commons debate on its plans to reform the House of Lords. There was almost universal derision for the white paper, which advocates that only 20 per cent of the new chamber's members be elected. Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative leader, chipped in with a cunning plan for 80 per cent. Labour has been made to look ridiculous. Cook is careful to point out that the draft was drawn up not by him, but by the Lord Chancellor's office.

"What is important is finding a way of going forward, locating the centre of gravity," Cook says. "The only reason hereditary peers have stayed is that, over the previous 90 years, those who wanted reform couldn't agree. I don't want to wait another 90 years." I noted a striking lack of support for the government among Labour MPs in the debate, to which Cook replied, with a smile: "That is an accurate observation." So he wouldn't shed any tears if the elected proportion would have to increase? Another smile. "I can't possibly answer that."

I suggest to him that some in Downing Street are now so fed up with the Lords issue that they would be happy for legislation to be put on hold. "I would regret that. I would very much want to see a way in which we can go forward," Cook says. "This bill was a manifesto commitment."

It is clear where his allegiances lie. I ask him how it came about that the government put forward proposals that fell so far short of what MPs wanted. "That," he murmurs, "is for my memoirs." Memoirs? The Cook book market is surely saturated. First came his wife Margaret's tales of his infidelity and character flaws. Then came my own chronicling of his political battles with Brown and Peter Mandelson. "I am sure," Cook says laconically, "there might still be room in the market."

This is a different Robin Cook to the one I met a number of times at his attic flat in his official residence back in 1997 and 1998. The answers are as clipped as ever, but he is less tetchy, less tired and more relaxed - more resigned, perhaps, to his lot.

Cook sees his new mission as restoring public confidence in politics. He has been one of the points of reference for a high-level BBC review team looking into the future of political coverage. He had one meeting early this month. Another is planned for the next week. Word is that Greg Dyke, the BBC director general, wants to change the way politics is covered, with less emphasis on politicians.

Cook agrees that the low election turnout and the drop in ratings for news programmes mark a fundamental shift. But his solution is not less parliamentary coverage, but more. "There is a need for stories to be rooted in parliament because too much of today's stories which pass as politics have actually nothing to do with what is going on in parliament. I said to them, the fact that 40 per cent of the public may not be interested much in politics doesn't mean you necessarily have to pitch everything at that 40 per cent level. You still have 60 per cent that is interested and there's no point in offending them in order to get at the rest."

I ask him to summarise his time at the Foreign Office. "Very rewarding, very interesting. I am very glad I had the opportunity of that experience." What is he most proud of? Top of the list was ending ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and getting Slobodan Milosevic to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. And, also, a "change in cultural priorities. We did move human rights up the agenda."

Then comes Europe, although in his case this has been a double-edged sword. "There was an enormous transformation in relations. We went from being a back-marker to being a leading member in the European Union, setting the agenda." And yet the constant rows with Brown over policy towards the euro were his undoing.

The big story of the post-election reshuffle came as a shock to all, including Cook himself: "The world knows it was a surprise. I had thoroughly enjoyed the four years at the Foreign Office." So why did Blair do it? "Prime ministers have to make a judgement, in which they weigh many things as they appear at the time. I am very happy where I am. And the fact he may have saved his decision until he was clear about the nature of the election victory is not necessarily wrong. Prime ministers have to take decisions in the light of events as they find themselves." For that, read he was devastated. And what about the reports that Cook asked Blair for time when offered the consolation of Leader of the Commons? "Now we really are getting into memoirs territory here. When I decide that the time is right to enlighten the world I think I will speak directly to the world. But that time is not now. I am a long, long way from the memoir stage." How long? "Long."

Cook is careful in speaking of his colleagues. He praises his successor, Jack Straw; and, unprompted, he rallies to the Prime Minister's defence in the face of criticism that he has spent too much time abroad in recent months. "Britain should be pleased, maybe even relieved, that we have a leader who is respected on the world stage. This is not a man who in any ways neglects the domestic agenda. But as I used to keep saying at the Foreign Office, you can no longer divorce the foreign agenda from the domestic agenda. If you want to stop drugs on the streets of Britain, you have to go to Afghanistan and Central Asia to stop the supply."

Yet Cook's biggest regret at the Foreign Office was to spend '"our years on planes and not in parliament". Now he's back, how outspoken is this former leader of the left prepared to be on the vexed issue of Britain's public services? He speaks in code but, when it comes to the merits of privatisation, places himself firmly in the "half-empty" camp. "From the Labour Party's point of view, last year showed a really quite powerful shift in terms of the political debate. We fought the election on a long-term commitment to investment in public services, the Conservatives on tax cuts. We won; they lost."

I remind him that a major part of Labour's election platform was extending private investment and management in health, education and transport. He sighs. "I don't have any problems with any of the specific proposals that were made in terms of harnessing the private sector. If management improvements can be made from the private sector, so be it." But in the same breath he praises the "dedication and motivation" of public sector workers, and says: "Sometimes the private sector can get it spectacularly wrong, as was the case with Railtrack."

So now what? It is not a question of "never", but certainly "not now", to moving to the Lords. And, having toyed from time to time with the idea of going back to Scotland, he finally closes the door. "The answer to this always has to be flatly 'no', because I find if I say anything that at all varies from that, I get headlines saying I'm going there next time. The people who are making the running in the Scottish Parliament for the next decade are the people who've been elected to the Scottish Parliament, who are there now.

"And that's the way it should be. I am very happy doing this job. I enjoy being at Westminster. I ain't looking for anywhere else to go." But, as he has already learnt, it's not up to him anyway.