Cook to Get Legg over and Done With

By Black, Ian | New Statesman (1996), July 24, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Cook to Get Legg over and Done With

Black, Ian, New Statesman (1996)

Robin Cook is confident that the report on the arms to Sierra Leone affair will exonerate him. Ian Black considers his record so far

Under stress, Robin Cook likes to joke, he will have a quiet session with Atilla, his nickname for the long-handled can-crusher he keeps along with the other Cool Britannia items on display in the bookcase in his private office - where fusty bound volumes of Hansard used to be. It is a fair bet that this satisfyingly effective device has been well used as new Labour has settled into government and Cook has found that running the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can be an exceedingly frustrating occupation.

Problems have dogged Cook from the start, from ructions over the separation from his wife, his relationship with Gaynor Regan and the sacking of his diary secretary through to more substantial rows over Kashmir, Palestine and Sierra Leone. "Get Cook" became fashionable, whether the issue was personal or political, though it was often both. A waspish manner, sardonic tone and features easily given to unflattering caricature have added to his vulnerability.

"Ethical foreign policy" has become a taunt by his critics however often he wearily reminds them that his ambitious mission statement, issued against a glitzy camera-friendly backdrop rather than the faded splendour of the FCO's Locarno Room, promised only an "ethical dimension".

Tony Blair has singled him out for praise, but there has been trouble with cabinet colleagues, most recently with Gordon Brown over this month's Comprehensive Spending Review. Policy and personality issues have become entangled in relations with Clare Short, who has established herself as a powerful force at the newly created Department for International Development. This week, according to an Evening Standard poll, Cook's popularity rating plummeted to 19 per cent, 30 points down from last year.

All this matters. Yet in the high-ceilinged corridors of King Charles Street, Cook has been counted a success. After 18 years of Tory rule and especially the near paralysis in the European Union that the "bastards" brought to John Major's twilight years, it was crying out for some fizz. Relations with the EU have not been transformed, but even with a lacklustre British presidency they have improved, especially considering the decision to maintain a holding position on the euro.

Next week, when Sir Thomas Legg publishes his report on the supply of arms to Sierra Leone, Cook is confident he will be exonerated. He has already insisted there was no ministerial connivance in a breach of the UN arms embargo imposed on the west African state after the overthrow of its elected government. Tory attempts to wreak revenge for his determination to get them over the Scott inquiry into arms for Iraq have failed. Legg will provide little new ammunition beyond that extracted in a long but largely theatrical tussle with the Commons foreign affairs committee and expended to little effect by Michael Howard.

FCO insiders do not know what is in the report, but they have seen the same documents as Sir Thomas and have a pretty good idea what he will conclude. Britain's man on the spot, Peter Penfold, and diplomats in the Africa department could face reprimand or disciplinary action over their contacts with Sandline International, the "security consultants" who were investigated by Customs and Excise but no longer face prosecution. Resentment lingers over the speed with which officials were fingered and ministers cleared. But this is about inefficiency and confusion, cock-up rather than conspiracy, though it would be surprising if anyone repeated Blair's unhelpfully dismissive "hoo-ha". "Not a hanging offence" is the line.

Recommendations are likely to be made about the flow of paper around the system and relations between ministers and their private offices to ensure adequate briefing - the lack of which led to Tony Lloyd's poor performance in the Commons in March.

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