Westminster great mourned by friend and foe

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HE MAY have been short of physical stature and his pinched features led cartoonists to gleefully, if unfairly, depict him as a garden gnome. With his ginger hair and neatly trimmed beard, Robin Cook himself often joked that he was not suited to leadership of a major political party in a televisual age.

But Cook's political standing was of the very highest as the heartfelt tributes that followed his premature death last night eloquently testified.

A massive intellect, who was never more at home than when pitting his sharp Scottish wits against despatch box opponents, he was one of the modern Labour Party's leading thinkers who rose through sheer ability and a dogged work ethic to occupy one of the three key offices of state. His dramatic resignation from the government in protest over the Iraq War only served to underline that despite his ambition - he and many supporters believed he should have been running the party - he was one of the most principled politicians of his generation.

His humour was waspish and admired even by those who were often the target. When George Bush was re-elected US president last year, he commented: "If you imagine the rest of us have a problem living with Bush for another four years, spare a thought for the 55 million Americans who voted against him."

On meeting US vice-president Dick Cheney in the White House while Foreign Secretary, he couldn't resist a dig. "He [Cheney] could not disguise his irritation that a European pinko had somehow wormed a way into his diary and for half an hour," Cook recalled.

Away from the Commons, he indulged his passion for the sport of kings and, jaunty trilby set at an angle, was a regular at many of Britain's race courses as well as a newspaper tipster.

His personal reputation was only tarnished during a messy divorce from his first wife, hospital consultant Margaret Cook, with whom he had two sons. The bitter, embarrassing episode followed his affair with his secretary, Gaynor Regan, who subsequently became his second wife.

Robert Finlayson Cook - he was nicknamed Robin at school on account of his red hair - was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, an only child whose father was a science teacher. He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School, the Royal High School, Edinburgh, where his father taught, and Edinburgh University, where he read English.

There were thoughts of going on to study divinity, but doubts about his beliefs set in and he turned his passion and determination into the Labour Party and socialism.

By the time he was a young man, his two great loves, politics and horse-racing, soon became apparent. "No one knows his horses better than our Robin," an acquaintance once said of him.

His first job was as a teacher, but he soon moved on to the Workers' Educational Association, and became a prominent and familiar figure in Edinburgh politics, serving on the city council and also as secretary of the local Labour Party.

Westminster and a national stage was always on the agenda however and he became MP for Edinburgh Central. When the seat was scrapped during boundary changes, he simply went out and won the West Lothian constituency of Livingston, which he represented until his death.

His political flair, and particularly his occasional haughty but effective manner of dealing with his political opponents, quickly attracted attention in the Commons.

Senior posts in opposition in the vital health and foreign affairs briefs followed for the rising star.

His devastating assault on John Major's administration over the arms-to-Iraq affair is the stuff of parliamentary legend. Cook famously devoured the massive Scott Report in the space of a few hours before delivering a coruscating speech which, along with a disastrous economy, sleaze allegations and open backbench mutiny, hastened the then Tory Prime Minister's departure from office.

After the death of the former Labour leader John Smith in 1994, Cook was widely regarded as the party's best political brain. But in an age in which appearance seemed to count for more than ability, he was never seriously in the running as Smith's successor.

Tony Blair won the top job, but knew that Cook's Commons intervention had proved a catalyst for the Tory's demise and a crushing landslide election victory in 1997. In Downing Street, Blair, keenly aware of Cook's talents, appointed him his first Foreign Secretary. After so long in opposition, Cook was delighted with such a plum position but despite his undoubted political acumen he came to be regarded as no more than an indifferent performer.

His career also took a heavy blow when, in 1998, he was involved in a bizarre marital calamity. A newspaper operation unearthed a mistress - Regan - he was hiding in a London flat. The exposure led to him effectively dumping his wife Margaret in a VIP lounge at London's Heathrow Airport just as the couple were setting out on a riding holiday in the United States.

He was given an ultimatum by Downing Street either to end that relationship or end his 28-year marriage to his wife Margaret. He chose Gaynor and took the wife who had supported his political career from its earliest days and was fully expecting to enjoy the trappings of high office, into a private room to inform her their marriage was over.

For a man trying to promote an "ethical" foreign policy, it could hardly have happened at a worse time, and there was a damaging loss of public respect. The episode allowed Major, at least, to get some revenge. "He is the only Foreign Secretary in 700 years who has had more trouble at home than he has abroad," she said.

Later, his first wife was to write about their relationship, in books and articles, which if they embarrassed him, he showed no sign of it at the time. His ex-wife wrote a book in which she said of her former husband: "His self-regard was easily punctured and his reaction was protracted and troublesome." Cook responded by saying the book was "vindictive and undignified".

Some time later, he married Gaynor at a registry office in Kent. And when he discovered that the ceremony had taken place in the absence of the press, he punched the air with glee.

But there was another rude shock in store for the man who hoped that his next post would be as Chancellor, replacing Gordon Brown. The two men had been at loggerheads over a long-running dispute about devolution.

Not only did that not happen, but Blair coolly demoted him to Leader of the House, a move which Cook plainly resented at the time, although he never said so. However, it was a job he gradually grew to like more and more as the months passed by. Again he was willing to make a stand on what he believed to be right. He threatened to resign over the reform of the House of Lords when Blair said he wanted an all-appointed Upper House. Cook was convinced it was absolutely the wrong thing to do.

It was the impending war with Iraq in 2003 which became the issue over which Cook was to resign. He summed up his opposition to the conflict in his much-acclaimed resignation speech in which he said: "Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create?"

But in that selfsame speech, Cook vowed to continue supporting the Prime Minister - calling him "the most successful leader of the Labour Party in my lifetime - who was coming under increasing criticism from Labour back-benchers also opposed to the war.

Cook was just saving himself for a later broadside. In a subsequent book, published shortly after his resignation, he dropped a bombshell by suggesting that Blair knew all along that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction available for use. It was a grave accusation which the Opposition failed to exploit. As was recognised at the time, Cook would have done a much better job.

His dislike of the "occupation" of Iraq by American and British forces never wavered, but his principal target appeared to be President Bush and his "muscular" foreign policy.

He rarely concealed his dislike of the so-called "special relationship" between Britain and America, waspishly commenting: "Tony [Blair] likes to see Britain as a bridge between the US and Europe. A bridge only works when the people on both sides want to cross over. The only bridge people like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz [the deputy US defence secretary] are interested in is a drawbridge, preferably one that has the latest satellite controls."

He tackled the central themes of the war with characteristic wit during a lecture last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival. "They found more dangerous chemicals in Coca-Cola's Dasani mineral water than they did in the whole of Iraq," he pointed out.

He began to revel in his new role of elder statesman, able to snipe from the backbenches and remind the New Labour leadership of the socialist principles on which the party was supposed to be based.

Last November, as a fully-active member of a growing Labour awkward squad, Cook said that for Labour's third-term manifesto to be "consistent" with the social values of Nye Bevan, it "must preserve the democratic, collective character of our health and education services. There must be clear limits set to the extent to which the private market can penetrate either."

Despite his opposition to Blair's war policy, Cook, ever the party loyalist, played an important role in Labour's General Election campaign earlier this year. He made a major effort to reassure anti-war voters - and particularly Muslims - that they could continue to support the party even if they had serious differences with its leadership over Iraq.

His Cabinet career was not necessarily over. It was widely expected that he would return to a senior ministerial role if Gordon Brown became Prime Minister.

Many of his most recent political statements were seen as endorsing the succession of his fellow Scottish MP and following the election he made several high-profile calls for Blair to step aside and make way for Brown to succeed him.

In his own constituency, he was regarded with genuine warmth by electors who returned him with his biggest-ever majority last May. As an epitaph for an instinctive, gut politician, it could hardly be bettered.

"Those suffering from injustice or disadvantage have lost a powerful voice."

"A strong European, a committed internationalist, and a distinguished foreign secretary with friends in every country, he will be mourned greatly not only by his family, friends, colleagues and constituents, but in every continent of the world."

- Chancellor Gordon Brown

"He also made an enormous contribution to British politics in opposition and in government. He will be sorely missed."

- Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott

"Robin Cook's contribution to British politics was immense. He was a politician of principle who fought hard for the things he believed in. He will be greatly missed."

- Conservative leader Michael Howard

"His intellectual rigour and his lancing wit made him the best debater in the House of Commons. In opposition, he took the scalps of many ministers and in government he was rarely bested. I feel I have lost a close friend and a loyal ally, irrespective of party."

- Liberal Democrat deputy leader Sir Menzies Campbell

"He played a key role in making Labour electable again and he helped convince many that it was possible to be both pragmatic and radical. Those suffering from injustice or disadvantage have lost a powerful voice."

- First Minister, Jack McConnell,

"He is known worldwide but the people of Edinburgh knew him as a conscientious MP. I shall always remember Robin as a warm and witty companion."

- Alistair Darling, Scottish Secretary

"Mr Cook was a friend of the United States and a friend of countless Americans. While we had our differences, we always knew he spoke from the heart, and we remain extraordinarily grateful for the leadership he displayed as Great Britain's Foreign Secretary, especially during the war in Kosovo. We shall miss him."

- Robert H Tuttle, the US ambassador to Britain

"I have known Robin since we were first-year students at Edinburgh University in 1963. I used to joke with him that he was born with a red beard and a copy of the Guardian under his arm. He will be regarded as one of the great Foreign Secretaries, not just from the Labour Party, but of any party."

- Labour peer Lord George Foulkes

"This is a terrible tragedy, not just for those who knew and cared for him, but also for political life in this country, which will be all the poorer."

- David Blunkett, former Home Secretary

"I'm devastated to hear this news. He was a close friend. He will be a great loss to the party and to the country. He was sincere and honest and held to his views on Iraq."

- Rosemary McKenna, the Labour MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, and formerly the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Cook

"I remember Mr Cook coming into the Commons in 1974 and being spoken of as the brightest of his intake - a reputation he lived up to throughout his parliamentary career."

- Sir Patrick Cormack, veteran Conservative MP for south Staffordshire

"I remember campaigning with him and he came to campaign with me in East Lothian. He was a very distinguished Foreign Secretary. He pioneered the concept of an ethical foreign policy and he meant it."

- John Home Robertson, he MSP for East Lothian who served with Cook in the Commons