Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 8 June 2001

Trust Tony Blair to ruin it all. There I was last Friday, feeling a little tired after staying up most of the night watching the election but in an unusually upbeat mood – Tories routed, few Labour losses, Lib Dems up, Trots and Stalinists consigned to the dustbin of history. And then he makes David Blunkett Home Secretary and fires Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary, giving his job to Jack Straw.

Yes, it’s the nightmare scenario. Labour’s most instinctive authoritarian as guardian of our civil liberties and a former evangelist Europhobe running our relations with Europe.

It is Straw who scares me more. Blunkett’s populist rhetoric on law and order is more extreme than his predecessor’s. And his prejudices – particularly against homosexuality – are more markedly conservative. (He once famously outraged the readers of this paper with a column in which he described his “revulsion at the idea of touching another man”.) But, at risk of tempting fate, I can’t for the moment imagine how he can be any worse than Straw in terms of policy.

Straw, however, is almost certain to be much, much worse than Cook in the Foreign Office. And that’s not just because Straw was so uninspiring in the Home Office.

Some on the left have attacked Cook for hypocrisy, arguing that his promise of an ethical basis for foreign policy was broken by arms sales to Indonesia, sanctions against Iraq and military intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

I have some sympathy with these critics on arms-to-Indonesia, on which Cook’s opposition was over-ruled by Blair, and rather less on Iraq, where sanctions were (and are) a blunt instrument to deal with the real villain of the piece, Saddam Hussein.

But on the whole I think Cook did an excellent job in difficult circumstances. His roles in the Kosovo and Sierra Leone interventions were entirely honourable, particularly his part in persuading the West to issue the threat of invasion of Kosovo by ground troops, which did more than anything else to persuade Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw.

Equally important, in his four years in office Cook did more than any other politician to repair the damage done to Britain’s relations with the European Union by the Tories. Unlike Blair and Gordon Brown he was and is at ease in European politics. He did his best to persuade the other Governments of the EU that Britain was serious about signing up for the euro. He did not lecture them time and again on the supposed need for deregulation and flexible labour markets. And he did not side automatically with the US on every question. On “Son of Star Wars” in particular he was a voice for restraint.

It is in the conduct of our relations with Europe that Cook will be most missed. Straw comes to Foreign Office with no experience of European politics and, more important, carrying all the baggage of an unrepentant early-1980s Labour Little Englander.

Twenty years ago, of course, anti-Europeanism was dominant in the Labour Party. But few were quite so obsessively Europhobic as Straw. A founder of the notoriously anti-European Labour Common Market Safeguards Committee, he was a consistent propagandist for the anti-European cause (not least in the pages of Tribune). In 1980, he told a special Labour conference that “a central part of our manifesto must be a pledge to withdraw from the Common Market immediately”. He made his first moves up the greasy pole after becoming an MP as a protege of Peter Shore, Labour’s most ardent anti-European of the period.

All of which was a long time ago – and of course people change their minds. But, unlike most other current Labour leaders who were anti-European in the early 1980s, Straw has never given even the slightest hint that he thinks differently now. For the past four years he has been one of the Cabinet’s most consistent opponents of the euro.

So why is he now Foreign Secretary? The most straightforward explanation is that Blair and Brown have decided to give up on joining the euro for some time – which is more plausible than most commentators suggest. Otherwise, the only half-credible explanation I have heard is that it is part of an elaborate gambit to avoid press reports of a split between the publicly pro-euro Cook and the publicly agnostic Brown. According to this scenario, Straw has secretly abandoned Euroscepticism, but has agreed to play mum until Brown produces a report recommending euro entry. The Foreign Secretary then fakes a Damascene conversion and – hey presto! – the great British public votes for the single currency.

I can’t believe Blair is stupid enough to think that such a crude coup de theatre would possibly work. But then I didn’t think he’d be stupid enough to fire Robin Cook.

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