A slight and delicate minister?

If Robin Cook is to be an effective Foreign Secretary, he must put past failures behind him

Robin Cook came to the office of Foreign Secretary as a disappointed man. This, much more than the other private turmoils that have now been so hideously exposed, has weakened his tenure of that office; he has succeeded in changing it somewhat, but he can only become an important figure in Britain and in Europe if he completes his personal and political transformation.

Cook was one of several Labour luminaries who regarded themselves, after John Smith's death, as future leaders. Gordon Brown's fury at his loss is evident still. But Cook's was probably as deep - deeper, perhaps, for being so lightly set aside in the public mind compared to the epic quality of the Brown pique.

Thus after 1994, Cook, though certain to get a high cabinet post in a Labour government, saw himself as alone and under-regarded. He was, he thought, a dying breed: a leftist not by birth but by intellect; a radical civil libertarian like Michael Foot but without the disabling Bevanite baggage; a formidable debater in an almost 19th-century sense; a scorner of media manipulation.

He became Foreign Secretary believing he should have been Chancellor or even Prime Minister. His ambivalence about his role led him to think of challenging Donald Dewar to be First Secretary of Scotland this year. This information was made public at about the same time as his affair and his separation from his wife were revealed; the two unrelated events contributed to the public image of a minister not wholly engaged with his brief.

He made misjudgements, both before and after taking office. He had thought that the swing to the left in the governments of Europe would resolve many of the pol- itical problems that beset the British- Continental relationship. That view proved only partly right. He gave coded signals that he was sceptical about the euro only to find that Continental social democrats, on whom he counted for support, were becoming keener. He also stressed his continued adherence to a broadly Keynesian view of economic management - a position that could not challenge the Brown-Blair new Labour dominance of economic policy but could make him look futile.

The largest issue in British foreign policy by far is the European Union; but because it is so large, and because new Labour had made it a central part of its programme to be positive about the EU, it was no longer a Foreign Office fiefdom. Brown, long an unfriendly rival of Cook's, with a style that instinctively seeks to dominate all activity in which he feels the Treasury should engage, was centrally concerned with policy on the euro. Blair set the tone and the style of the new relationship with Europe - Cook, inevitably, appeared as only the second man.

Some of his "gaffes" - keeping the late Princess of Wales waiting, trying to replace his diary secretary with the woman who is now his wife - betrayed poor judgement. Others were matters of principle: the call for international mediation on Kashmir, the visits to the sites of Arab victimisation in Israel, which so infuriated Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. What turned them into a rich and poisonous brew were the continued revelations of infidelity and the threatened memoir by Margaret Cook (parts of which Cook read two months ago), which has now been published.

The exposure need not be fatal. Britain does not have a party so dedicated to partisan hatred and so in league with public hypocrisy as America's Republicans. Blair has drawn a line in front of his ministers' private lives. So, in effect, have the Tories; Michael Howard's calls for resignation have been cynically timed, but the shadow foreign secretary has had to insist that he is inspired by higher motives than those of the News of the World.

It will help Cook, too, that his misfortune closely follows another's. Peter Mandelson had been an unfriendly rival and, both as Minister without Portfolio and as Trade and Industry Secretary, a cuckoo in the nest of Europe. Mandelson travelled extensively in the first year of the Labour government, making contacts with ministers and policy-makers in centre-left governments and constructing a "Third Way" network of those who were interested in combining - as Blair put it in his speech in South Africa last week - the dynamism of capitalism with the dictates of social justice. But Mandelson is reduced now; and Cook agreed, over dinner last week, that the former minister should work with him to develop "new Labourish" policies throughout the EU, give speeches where Cook cannot, and use Foreign Office briefing and backing to act as a roving ambassador for the government.

Towards the end of last year, Cook began a Foreign Office brainstorming on Europe, drawing in his brightest officials with outsiders to throw around ideas. Cook has floated ideas on addressing the democratic deficit through a greater involvement of the national parliaments.

He faces a daunting period. "Agenda 2000", an almost entirely contentious raft of issues which includes reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and of structural funds, will be tackled in February and March. An agreement must be put to the European Parliament before the June elections if progress is to be made on expansion and, more urgently, if a budget is to be passed.

Cook sees it as a measure of the respect in which he is held by his Continental colleagues that he chairs a working group which has drafted the European Socialist Parties' manifesto for the elections, to be presented to the leaders of the 22 parties later this month. It has "21 commitments for the 21st century", focusing on a "people's Europe" in which creating employment is at the heart of policy, together with environmental protection, an attack on social exclusion, and the preservation of social solidarity. He is forging particularly strong relations with Hubert Vedrine, the French foreign minister, who would normally be thought a rival both inside and outside Europe. At breakfast last week the two men outlined a plan whereby French and British ambassadors in Africa could hold a joint meeting, under the chairmanship of the two foreign ministers - an unprecedented gathering (if it happened) which would end a bitterly contested scramble for territory and influence that has lasted more than a century.

Cook will not go further than the government line on the euro - that Britain will join when the time is right - but he is probably no longer the sceptic he was. He recognises that the new currency's creation raises the stakes for those countries - Denmark, Greece and Sweden, as well as the UK - that have stayed out.

So Europe, once an object of his suspicion, could be the saving and the redefining of Robin Cook. If - as the Guardian saw it this week - the Foreign Office is the limit to his ambitions, it is a very high limit indeed. He has probably been brought to realise that; and, in doing so, he could become what Blair claims he is: a formidable Foreign Secretary.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?