7 August 2005

ROBIN COOK 1946-2005 – 2

Two snippets from New Statesman and Society (as it then was) in 1994, one from a piece by Ian Aitken and one a leader I wrote while the boss was away:

Why Robin Cook should lead Labour
Ian Aitken, 3 June 1994

. . . Forget all that patronising guff in the newspapers comparing the shadow trade and industry secretary to a garden gnome, and recalling how he used to be referred to as "Yon wee Scottish health pixie" at the time when he was destroying a succession of Tory health secretaries with his withering tongue. Cook is, quite simply and without qualification of any kind, by far the most effective party warrior currently operating in the House of Commons.

Even if you do not entirely share his left-of-centre attitudes . . . it is sufficient in electoral terms to recognise that Robin Cook is the only frontbencher who regularly makes the eyes of Tory ministers water when he steps up to the despatch box. Most recently, he laid waste to none other than Michael "Tarzan" Heseltine over Post Office privatisation and the DTFs ludicrously over-hyped white paper on competition.

But as I learned the hard way during my first encounter with him, Cook is not just a parliamentary performer. The story is worth repeating, even though it happened 20 years ago. At the time, Cook was still only a prospective candidate, and he had been sent down to London with some other Scottish candidates to learn how to cope with television interviews.

Percy Clark, the then press officer at Transport House, had been let down by some television grandee, and he conscripted me at short notice to stand in as the interviewer. My instructions were to try to make them all cry, and I honestly believe that a few lips quivered as they reeled out of the make-believe studio one by one.

The very last candidate to be wheeled in was a small ginger youth. By now I was actually enjoying my role as a budding Robin Day, and I failed to notice the steely eyes and the belligerent jaw-line. When I gave him the full benefit of my scornful wit, which I had perfected on the others, I was astonished to find my supposed victim lashing back vigorously. Within minutes he had wiped the floor with me, and I was the one with the quivering lip.

I made a mental note, as I tottered into the green room for a restorative, that this was a young man who had leadership potential, and I have stuck to that judgment ever since. So when my ballot paper eventually arrives, I shall be marking it Cook 1, Prescott 2, Brown 3, Blair 4 — which is precisely the opposite of the order in which Fleet Street evidently wants me to vote.

No Cook, no contest (leader, 10 June 1994)
By the time most readers of NSS get this issue, voting in the European election will be over and the runners in the Labour leadership will have declared—as indeed will the non-runners. But as we go to press the only certainty is that Gordon Brown will not be putting his name forward. All the others who have been mentioned as possible contenders have kept their intentions to themselves as planned.

All the same, it is increasingly likely that the best person to lead Labour into the next election is not going to be in the race at all.

Robin Cook has this week apparently been swayed by his poor showing in opinion polls of Labour Party members and supporters not to go for the top job. Far and away the most intelligent and radical of all the would-be contenders – and easily the most effectively combative in the House of Commons and as a public speaker – he seems to have decided that standing would mean risking humiliation and subsequent demotion from his current job as Labour's trade and industry spokesperson.

Many of Cook's supporters will be disappointed, and with reason. He is the most able representative of Labour's libertarian left, a political tendency that deserves a voice in the leadership contest. Given that his economic policy differences with Tony Blair are nowhere near as big as those between Bryan Gould and John Smith, there is no reason to expect that he would have been given the Gould treatment in the event of a Blair victory.

As it is, however, if Cook sticks to his decision not to run, Tony Blair is now virtually unstoppable. The reason is simple. Put bluntly, there is no credible challenger apart from Cook. Of the two hopefuls who seem almost certain to run against Blair from the left, John Prescott cannot win and Margaret Beckett has even less chance. Both Prescott and Beckett are generally admired in the Labour Party, and each has undoubted qualities. Prescott is blunt, pugnacious and sharp-minded, and Beckett has an unrivalled head for detail.

But neither, unlike Cook, is widely considered to be leadership material. On the level of image, it is difficult to imagine Prescott living down his reputation as a loose cannon or Beckett suddenly acquiring a television manner that matches the warmth of her off-air personality.

More important, both are out of tune with the politics of the time. They are very much of the old left – Eurosceptic, against proportional representation for the House of Commons, lukewarm about green politics. Neither will get more than grudging support from the increasingly important part of the Labour left that is pro-Europe, pro-PR and environmentalist . . .

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