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3 December 2001

Cook quietly plots his revenge

Andrew Lappinon a man who has lost an empire, but could make a little mischief in his new role

By Andrew Lappin

It takes a certain gall, and a certain self-belief, to transform the loss of high office into personal vindication, to rebuild a power base from demotion. Robin Cook thinks he is the man to do it.

Six months ago, the then foreign secretary’s trademark hauteur was badly bruised. But he has accommodated his spectacular loss of clout with apparent good grace. As President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons – two titles for the price of one – it has not been hard to restore a show of dignity.

It will matter to Cook, if to few others, that he has a rich vein of parliamentary prestige to mine. Until 1945, leading the Commons was the preserve of the prime minister. Michael Foot, defeated for the party leadership in 1976 and given a choice of portfolio, opted for leader of the House because he recognised its power. Yet there is an emptiness to the position. Herbert Morrison (1945-51) relished the role as legislative fixer, but had few illusions about its challenges: “I do not accept the view that it is a full-time task . . . I should say that it varied between a quarter and a third of my working day.”

But if Cook has time on his hands, he can rescue his pride and plot revenge. Tony Blair, notoriously insouciant when it comes to things parliamentarian, has given him the means to do so.

Cook, who has always fancied himself as a constitutional expert, knows a good thing when he sees it. From his few scraps of policy responsibility and influence, he can make a subtle fist as the defender of the House, and it is a fist to be shaken at Downing Street (Nos 10 and 11). The temptation to make mischief may prove irresistible.

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Cook, legend has it, was never a team player. Even in opposition (the long-lost era of superguns and Scott), when he regularly topped the shadow cabinet annual poll, he was admired, but not popular. As foreign secretary, Cook’s appetite for doing his own thing was sustained by rarely having to engage with any member of the cabinet other than the Prime Minister. Those intimate bilaterals in No 10 are a thing of the past now, and Cook has yet to discover the joys of small talk around the cabinet table. How much patience will he have for the necessary, and necessarily secret, squarings, consultations and negotiations in his new role?

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Backbenchers, on the other hand, waking up to the extent of their own passivity, are in need of a friend. If Cook will never be that, he can become champion of the tired and bored. He is kick-starting the modernisation of the House – the reform of its powers of legislative scrutiny is mooted, as well as the more headline-grabbing issue of changing working hours to end late-night voting. He has even floated the idea of expanding those awkward select committees. But the Commons has a habit of bogging itself down; the modernisation committee’s hastily convened review on the narrow point of select committee nominations, first promising to report in October, has yet to materialise.

If Cook needs more impressive rabbits, consider Lords reform. For all Cook’s asseverations of support for the proposal to elect a mere one in five to the second chamber, his was not an energetic defence; and it was made less convincing by briefings away from the despatch box that the government would have to revise the elected quotient if enough fuss was made. Half the Labour back bench have signed a motion for a wholly or substantially elected chamber. There is no secret as to where Cook’s sympathies lie. On past experience, their chatter will not be heard for a while yet in Downing Street, leaving Cook well placed to cultivate this store of goodwill.

But he can forget his dreams of more proportional representation for the Commons. The landslide of 7 June saw the long grass claim that cause for good; Labour MPs have little reason for nervousness about their electoral prospects. This is one part of his canon that Cook would be wise to underplay; so, too, his inscrutable persistence in courting the Lib Dems, which does not go down well with Labour MPs, ministers and lobby fodder alike. Cook continues to blow hopefully on the ashes of the Lib-Lab joint consultative committee that was so peremptorily kicked over by Charles Kennedy. What warmth is left in relations now will surely dissipate with the delay to the implementation of the troubled Freedom of Information Act. Perhaps we should expect Cook to rekindle his interest in the virtues of openness and transparency.

Cook is only beginning to pick his way through the constitutional thicket of thorny issues. From parliamentary modernisation to Lords reform to referendums, he will find plenty with which to barb Labour’s soft underbelly. Our former foreign secretary may have lost his empire, but he has certainly found a role. Some will wish him luck.

Andrew Lappin is a former special adviser to Mo Mowlam