Why don't they get their act together?

Cook, Hain and Short are all members of what is loosely called the "sensible" left. Alas, they never

The House of Commons authorities must have had a sense of humour earlier this year when they allocated neighbouring rooms in a newly refurbished block to the two main critics of the government's road to war with Iraq - Robin Cook and Clare Short. The former foreign secretary and the former international development secretary do not get on. If they did, their political power would be considerably stronger, and so would that of the left. In Blairite terminology, they could have achieved far more working together than working alone.

Problems of individualism, antagonism and territorial resentments have dogged the Labour government from the start. These battles have mainly been looked at through the prism of the personal, the "who hates whom" stories on which so much political journalism feeds. But it is more important than that. The arguments, sometimes brief, sometimes lasting decades, have played a major part in determining the balance of power and the course of public policy.

The Tony Blair/Gordon Brown axis has been trawled through by writers and film-makers. That on-off relationship is now going through one of its cyclical downturns, fuelled over the past month by the re-emergence of Peter Mandelson in the heart of Downing Street. Some in Whitehall suspect a resurgence of briefings against the Chancellor: the Times reported that Blair had gone over Brown's head to rule out increases in income tax for the next general election and the Financial Times, inter alia, suggested a new alliance between Brown and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, over issues ranging from identity cards to Europe.

The tactic might serve a short-term purpose, but it is debilitating for good government in the long term. At a stroke, it undermines the genuine pledge among some in Downing Street for a new start, for a more open style of administration. It is vintage 1990s new Labour/US Democrat spin - portraying one side as "resistant" to change and the other as "radical". It reinforces a perception that Blair's office formulates policy and then passes it down. Brown has recently been defined by his criticism of policies such as foundation hospitals and tuition fees, rather than by his role in setting the broader framework. Some in No 10 would like the process to be more inclusive, but they face opposition. When was the last time Blair was seen to embrace proposals and initiatives emanating exclusively from departments themselves?

These disputes over policy will come to a head in the next few weeks, with key votes in the Commons. But what about those ministers who agree on most issues, but cannot bring themselves to admit their agreement? Imagine what a difference it could have made if the likes of Brown, Short, Cook and Peter Hain - and sometimes others such as Straw and Patricia Hewitt - had sought to co-ordinate their positions?

Brown and Short have historically been allied, as have Cook and Hain. Short derived her power base in cabinet through her alliance with the Chancellor. He derived a foreign policy influence and a further foothold within the party for identifying development issues as a key priority. He sought to dissuade her from resigning, but did not challenge her reservations about the war. He was disappointed at the manner of her "non-resignation" on the eve of the military campaign, as were many in the parliamentary party and the country. After her actual resignation at the end of the war Brown kept his distance, but subsequently re-established a limited form of contact. Her fate under any future Brown government is uncertain.

The Hain-Cook partnership has not disappeared since the latter's resignation, although it has become more discreet. Interviewing the Leader of the Commons for a television documentary on Cook, I was struck by his reluctance to criticise his predecessor. Hain recalled their close relationship in the 1980s stemming from the Labour co-ordinating committee, as they tried to "prompt" Neil Kinnock from a "constructive sensible left". For all his public loyalty now to Blair, Hain admits he was "disappointed" at Cook's decision not to stand in the 1994 leadership contest. "He had enough support and probably would have done reasonably well, but nobody could convince him, because perhaps we couldn't convince ourselves, that anybody could beat Tony Blair." When Blair asked Cook to help organise his leadership campaign, Cook declined, arguing that he had already acted as kingmaker for Kinnock and John Smith. But had he accepted, his relationship with Blair might have been very different.

According to Ken Purchase, Cook's ally and former parliamentary private secretary: "Had the Cook and Brown relationship prospered, had it been close and comradely as opposed to a little frosty, then there may have been a very different outcome to the meeting that Gordon Brown had with Tony Blair when they decided it was Blair's turn [for the leadership]".

There have been a number of attempts at a Cook-Brown reconciliation. In the mid-1990s, Blair tried hard to get them and Mandelson together, arranging dinners at a mutual friend's house in south London. Brown spoke at Cook's 25th-anniversary party as an MP at his Livingston constituency, and the two have had drinks together in the Treasury. Yet time and again it suffered relapses, notably over Europe. Cook maintains: "We had a good working relationship. I'm not sure that I can identify a cause where we agree which has in any way suffered from us not pulling together. I've never disagreed with Gordon in what he's doing in the social policy agenda and to my knowledge he's never disagreed with anything I was trying to do in foreign affairs."

Therein lies the tragedy. The two men shared similar values, similar backgrounds, informed by the Church of Scotland and by an essentially Scottish sense of social justice and equity. Cook's economic critique was, throughout the early 1990s, not nearly as "modernised" as Brown's, but his depiction at the recent Labour Party conference of Brown's "social policy by stealth" is intended as both critical and sympathetic, acknowledging the political constraints under which the Chancellor has had to operate.

The coolness between Cook and Short has shown the left at its most self-destructive. Short's hesitations on the eve of war can be put down largely to the impulsiveness that has been her greatest asset and liability. Since then she has adopted a posi- tion of out-and-out opposition, calling repeatedly for Blair's resignation. Cook's more complex approach raises a number of questions. Why did he make his resignation speech on that Monday night in March, and not the following day as Blair was preparing to address the Commons, when it would have had even greater impact? Why did he not make the same claims that he made in his book six months later about Blair admitting that the intelligence was flawed? Cook says he did not hold back at the time. I wonder.

In their five and a half years together in government, Cook and Short co-operated grudgingly. She resented his original reluctance to hive off the "good news" part of the Foreign Office as part of an upgrading of international development issues. He, in common with many in the cabinet, resented what he saw as her grandstanding. Yet, for all that, why did Cook and Short not bury their differences and co-ordinate their approaches in cabinet, thereby increasing the power of the anti-war lobby? Perhaps, ultimately, Cook wanted to warn the government but not be responsible for a constitutional crisis. Perhaps he has sought to keep the door a little ajar, though Cook tells me he has no ambitions for a return to government or for another top job such as the soon-to-be-vacant post at the European Commission.

Cabinet ministers see less of each other than is realised. Most reserve time before and after the weekly cabinet meetings on Thursday mornings to have informal chats with their colleagues. They meet again in the margins of Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons on Wednesday lunchtimes, but usually briefly. Cabinet committees and evening votes provide opportunities, but attempts to bring in processes that cut across government departments have had limited success. Ministers hear about each other through the media.

Each of the protagonists warns of the dangers of creating any left caucus or any formal alliance. That, they insist, would bring back the worst memories of a party within a party of the early 1980s, playing into the hands of those who wilfully misinterpret constructive criticism as rebellion.

And yet the tragedy of what Hain and Cook would call the "sensible left" is that for five years, even after Iraq, they remain an incoherent and inchoate force that has failed to work together, leaving the coast clear for a small but determined Blairite faction at the centre of government to dominate the debate about policy in the Labour Party.

John Kampfner presents Robin Cook: the lost leader on 23 October and Clare Short: the conscientious objector in late November on BBC Television

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