How Blair Stitched Up Robin Cook: The Fiasco over Lords Reform Shows How the PM Has Become an Old-Fashioned Machine Politician, Who Will Let Nothing Get in His Way. (Features)

By Kampfner, John | New Statesman (1996), February 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

How Blair Stitched Up Robin Cook: The Fiasco over Lords Reform Shows How the PM Has Become an Old-Fashioned Machine Politician, Who Will Let Nothing Get in His Way. (Features)


Kampfner, John, New Statesman (1996)


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. …

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