How Blair stitched up Robin Cook

The fiasco over Lords reform shows how the PM has become an old-fashioned machine politician, who wi

It's not that Tony Blair can't stand Robin Cook (although there isn't much love lost), it's that he can't stand the things he stands for. The clash between Prime Minister and his one-time foreign secretary, which has reached a new intensity over the reform of the House of Lords, is one of the most instructive of the many axes of tension in the Labour government.

Gordon Brown v Peter Mandelson is personal. Brown v Blair is about rivalry, which finds current expression through differences over the role of the market in public services. Brown v Cook combines Scottish politics and Europe with mutual distrust. Blair v Cook goes to the heart of how British politics is conducted. It is a thoroughly unequal contest.

The debacle of the votes on Lords reform on 4 February saw the parliamentary process plumb new depths. Everyone was a loser. The absurdity of MPs voting against seven separate options for creating a new upper chamber will have reinforced public derision for the place. For Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, it was a mixed result. The option he set out was rejected without even a vote. And yet he can pat himself on the back for persuading Blair to embrace the idea of a House of Lords that is appointed, not elected. Blair himself won't have appreciated the refusal of several of his ministers, including some very loyal Young Turks, to obey his instructions. But he doesn't give a stuff for the issues involved and will be relieved that he managed to muddy the waters so much that it will now be forgotten.

Cook raised the stakes. He implored Labour MPs to back his proposals. Some did, but not enough. Far more dangerously, he publicly mocked Blair: it was "my own, personal, very humble opinion", he told MPs, that an unelected chamber would not restore public confidence. Nobody does that and gets away with it.

A few hours before the vote, Cook told friends that he was confident of victory. He dismissed press talk of him resigning over either constitutional reform or Iraq.

Cook allowed his worst instincts to get the better of him in the chamber. He marshalled his facts but forgot to massage his colleagues. He had a little swipe at the chief whip, Hilary Armstrong, pointing out that she and three other members of the cabinet had, ten years ago, been on a commission recommending an elected Lords. He had a little spat with Gerald Kaufman, and exchanged icy words and glances with Mandelson. Unlike Brown, Cook has never learnt to indulge fellow MPs. While they make their points, he taps the despatch box in impatience and disdain.

Once the votes had been counted, Cook was crestfallen. He knew that Blair's intervention had scuppered his best-laid plans. Nevertheless, this was a brave stand by a man who knows his future is at the mercy of forces he cannot control. Cook has been passionate about issues over which Blair has either strong reservations or barely disguised contempt - these are constitutional reform, an ideological approach to arms sales and human rights, and an old-fashioned desire to engage the Labour Party in debate.

Blair inherited a political modernisation agenda from John Smith, but his understanding of the concept was entirely different. I remember asking Blair back in 1996, when still in opposition, about modernising parliament. He rolled his eyes and suggested I turn my attention to more important matters. As the graft of government took over, he even stopped pretending. "Don't get the impression that any of us is losing sleep over this sort of thing," one of Blair's people told me, on the eve of the latest instalment in the Lords reform saga.

Blair has come a long way since his manifesto for the Labour leadership in 1994, which spoke of an elected Lords as being crucial to the revival of British politics. He has become a machine politician of the traditional sort, who judges performance in terms of getting things done. The harder it has become to improve public services or tackle problems in the criminal justice system or asylum and immigration, the more Blair has evolved into a grimly mechanistic leader. In parliamentary terms, that means pushing through legislation - and any second chamber with enhanced authority is perceived as inimical to that goal. Blair will strike deals with any group that serves his purpose - in the case of Lords reform, this means with very "old Labour" MPs.

Cue Cook. It took him several months to get over the indignity of demotion at the last election. It wasn't just what was done, but how. His friends make it clear that Blair had given him no indication that he was anything other than happy with his performance at the Foreign Office. But Blair finally had him exactly where he wanted him, weakened by the furore in the press over his marital problems (journalists were neither encouraged nor discouraged by Downing Street). As my biography of him chronicled, Cook's attempts to stop arms sales to areas of tension, to introduce a stronger ethical dimension to foreign policy, were systematically undermined. He no longer had the power to resist, so he went quiet on it. Even so, Cook developed very strong working relations with his US and European counterparts - something Blair came to appreciate. Cook the radical had turned himself into a loyal executor of a foreign policy made in No 10. He looked forward, as he repeatedly told people, to becoming the longest-serving foreign secretary of the 20th century.

Cook feels Blair denied him the chance of leaving a lasting mark on the Foreign Office. His decision to accept the job of Leader of the Commons in the post-election reshuffle of June 2001 caused as much surprise as did Blair's decision to move him. As a sweetener, he was allowed to stay on at his Foreign Office residence. Initially, Cook stuck to the same course he adopted at the Foreign Office, trying to avoid controversy and hang on in there. But over the past year, he has had a new lease of life, reminiscent of his heyday in opposition in the early 1990s. As a self-styled defender of the parliamentary process, he has found a new voice. He has tried to breathe new life into a House of Commons that had become an abject shell. He wants a place in political history as a true parliamentary reformer - whether or not he succeeds.

At each and every turn, he encountered forces of resistance. Sometimes they were actively encouraged by Blair's lot. On no occasion were they discouraged. Last May, Cook tried to give Commons select committees more powers. That was blocked. Late last year, he convinced MPs to change their working hours, but only after a struggle. And then came this latest battle.

Cook was completely mystified at Blair's intervention. It was one thing for the Prime Minister to express a preference in a free vote. But to have a question planted by a loyal MP during Prime Minister's Questions on 29 January and then to dismiss Cook's proposals, while sitting less than a yard away from him, was uncalled for. Still, it did the job. After 90 years of waiting, the prospect of meaningful reform for the upper house has once again foundered.

For Cook, parliamentary reform is part of a bigger challenge of reviving confidence in the political process, of introducing greater pluralism. It is closer to the mid-1990s modernising spirit of new Labour than anything Blair or his entourage are currently espousing. However, the Blairites see it as pure posturing.

They say they're not in a hurry to move him, and relations with Cook are described as "perfectly OK". After a war in Iraq, though, Blair may want to seize the moment and bring changes to a cabinet that feels old, tired and fractious. He may go for the "nuclear" option and move Gordon Brown. He could thank John Prescott for his services and give him a peerage. He would be loath to dump Clare Short, no matter how many times she defies him. Cook knows the Labour Party at large agrees with most of what he says about Iraq, about foreign policy, about constitutional reform.

He also knows that Blair could get rid of him at will, perhaps as early as this summer, and the party would barely squeak.