Magazine article The Spectator

Robin Cook Has Always Been an Implausible Foreign Secretary and the Doubts Are Growing

Magazine article The Spectator

Robin Cook Has Always Been an Implausible Foreign Secretary and the Doubts Are Growing

Article excerpt

Robin Cook may well be the cleverest member of the government. He is one of the two best debaters in the Commons, the other being William Hague. He also looks like a foreign minister - the foreign minister, say, of Ruthenia, in London in effect to ask for ten million quid for a cup of tea, who will be given a lunch at Lancaster House, the host of which will be a minister of state, not the Foreign Secretary, with whom he will have a brief audience, reluctantly conceded; there is no question of a visit to No. 10. If Mr Cook had turned up in such a role, he would seem entirely plausible, but he has never seemed plausible as the British Foreign Secretary and he has now vindicated all the doubts that were expressed about his appointment. He may have brains: he has no judgment. Worse than that; he simply does not know how to conduct himself. He is turning out to be a worse foreign secretary than George Brown, without George Brown's excuse: Mr Brown would not have behaved as Mr Cook has, except when he was drunk.

There is nothing wrong with a new minister making changes in his private office. The working relationship between a minister and his private office is so crucial to his well-being that he is entitled to select staff on the basis of personal chemistry as well as performance. Moreover, unless Miss Bullen was politically naive, it ought to have occurred to her that if there were a change of government, her position would be in jeopardy. Mr Cook's decision to replace her was in no way culpable. But it was imbecilic of him even to consider replacing her with Miss Regan, and it was unforgivable of him to smear Miss Bullen.

Perhaps because he himself had been a diplomat, who might have been thought to be in thrall to FO procedures, Douglas Hurd made a number of unconventional appointments during his time as foreign secretary. The head of the FO's news department is nearly always a future senior ambassador, but Mr Hurd brought in Brian Mower, a commissioned NCO who had been his director of information at the Home Office.

That was not the only break he made with FO traditions. The post of principal private secretary to the foreign secretary is usually reserved for a diplomat in his early forties who has been identified as one of the most outstanding members of his generation, and even David Owen did not ignore that precedent. When his first private secretary, Ewen Fergusson, moved onwards and upwards, Dr Owen's first instinct was to appoint the number two private secretary, Stephen Wall. But he was persuaded that this would inflict too much disruption on career patterns. Stephen Wall did get the job, but not until almost a decade later, to serve Geoffrey Howe. But where Dr Owen had backed off, Mr Hurd held firm and promoted younger officials straight to the number one slot. Richard Gozney and John Sawers were the youngest private secretaries in the modern history of the Foreign Office, and appeared to do the job with considerable aplomb.

In hierarchical terms, the foreign secretary's diary secretary is a lowly figure, but the job is vital. Inevitably, the foreign secretary's diary will change at short notice, so that important visitors have to be rescheduled. There are a lot of dealings with No. 10 and with the Palace; without a first-rate diary secretary, the foreign secretary cannot do his job properly. Mr Hurd had two successive diary secretaries, chosen from the civil service, who seemed unequal to the pressure. He then learned that Anne Bullen might be available, and Miss Bullen was a secretary of legendary qualities. …

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