Peter Oborne

Cook the Martyr now has the luxury of resigning on his own terms

Cook the Martyr now has the luxury of resigning on his own terms

Text settings

There is a moment in the Uncle Remus stories when Brer Rabbit is finally cornered by Brer Fox, who genially informs his victim

'I'm going to barbecue you today, for sure.'

Then Brer Rabbit started talking mighty humble.
'I don't care what you do with me, Brer Fox,' says he. 'Just so you don't fling me in that briar patch. Roast me, Brer Fox,' says he, 'But don't fling me in that briar patch.'

Brer Fox duly 'slung him right in the middle of the briar patch', whereupon the cunning rabbit got up and ran away.

There was a moment, in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 general election, when Tony Blair, like Brer Fox, had Robin Cook where he wanted him. Cook was busted. He had been (and would have remained, had not Jack Straw demonstrated that the job could be done with even less dexterity) the clumsiest foreign secretary for decades. His once loyal Labour party constituency - the old Tribune Left - viewed him, not without reason, as a traitor. He was cordially disliked, at best, by the majority of his Cabinet colleagues.

At this point it would have been sensible, and a simple matter, to sack Cook. He would have presented little menace from the back-benches. But Tony Blair did not dispatch his enemy. Instead he demoted him. Cook, who has a distinguished claim to be the finest parliamentarian of his generation, has been as adroit as leader of the Commons as he was leaden-footed at the Foreign Office. It has been a professional, almost an aesthetic, pleasure to watch Cook at work

The House of Commons is the natural home for Cook in the same way that the briar patch was for Brer Rabbit. In the last two years he has regrouped. He struts about and preens himself with all the insolence of the old days when his rapier debating skills tore Conservative ministers to shreds. Once again Robin Cook has a Commons constituency. Once again he is a force to be reckoned with.

He has bided his time. When he sat on the Cabinet committee on Lords reform, which met through the summer and autumn of 2001, he went along with the crowd. When it recommended an 80 per cent appointed House - the proposal which formed the basis of the White Paper - there was no objection from Cook. It was only in November 2001, with the publication of Fiona Mactaggart's Early Day Motion urging a more democratic second chamber, that doubts about Cook's loyalty emerged. It is difficult to say for sure whether or not this subversive EDM was - as many in Downing Street believed - inspired by the leader of the House. But by the summer of 2002 Cook was publicly laying emphasis on an elected second chamber, to the increasing irritation of the Prime Minister.

The first sign that Tony Blair had backed away from any democratic element in the Lords came at the start of January when Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine pronounced the a 'hybrid' chamber was unsatisfactory. This remark, along with Tony Blair's calculated snub to Robin Cook at Prime Minister's Questions ten days ago, set the scene for last Tuesday's debate on Lords reform. The sketchwriters failed to convey the baroque solemnity of the afternoon's events. Perhaps only the skills of a certain kind of minor novelist - C.P. Snow springs to mind - would have done full justice to the introspective self-importance of this futile parliamentary afternoon, allied to the deranged though harmless belief that any of it mattered.

The day was reported as a humiliation for the Prime Minister, though it was hard to see why this should be. For one thing, it was a free vote. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable features of the debate was the way that junior ministers like Ben Bradshaw, who have turned sycophancy into a way of life, chose to take a contrarian line on this trivial issue in order to create the illusion that they had minds of their own. Nor should it be forgotten that the Prime Minister won the day. Such is the prevailing confusion that the system of appointment he claims to favour will surely persist for many years to come.

Last Tuesday's vote produced one winner, Tony Blair; one villain, Derry Irvine; and one martyr, Robin Cook. Martyrdom should suit Cook well. Tony Blair missed his chance to sack Cook on his own terms two years ago. Cook now has the luxury of resigning on his own terms. A striking factor of the past six years has been the absence of a leader of the Labour Left. There has been no Aneurin Bevan or Michael Foot to make life challenging for the existing leadership. A job vacancy exists and Robin Cook, last Tuesday's loser, is the man to fill it. He could prove to be as deadly a foe to Tony Blair from the Labour backbenches as he was to John Major from the front bench seven years ago.

But this was also a moment of vindication for Robert Cranborne, dramatically sacked by William Hague for secretly negotiating with Tony Blair to save 92 hereditary peers from the wreckage of Lords reform. At the time this looked like vanity. Now, in the absence of a way forward, Cranborne's 92 may be here to stay. Lord Cranborne deserves the credit for perceiving, as others did not, how difficult it would be for the government to move on to a second stage of Lords reform once hereditary peers had been abolished.

Not only that; he had the foresight to insist on a system of by-elections in the Lords so that, when one of the 92 dies, he or she can be replaced. The first of these by-elections, brought about by the death of George Makgill, the 13th Viscount of Oxfuird, on 3 January, is now due to take place. All remaining hereditary peers get to vote. Strict rules have been laid down regarding campaigning practices, entertaining, etc. The system happily resembles the process of self-selection advocated in the leader column of The Spectator two weeks ago, which itself bears a startling similarity to the procedure laid down for election to Pop, the exclusive Etonian society.

Lord Poole, Viscount Trenchard, Lord Montgomery of Alamein and Lord Ullswater (who was discouraged from standing first time round because he was working in the household of Princess Margaret) are all likely to stand, as are the socialist peers Lord Monkswell and Lord Daresbury, chairman of Aintree racecourse. There are those who hope that the Duke of Devonshire can be persuaded to throw his hat into the ring. This goes to show that democracy is still alive and well in the House of Lords, even though it suffered a crippling blow in the Commons on Tuesday night.