Redhead Robin fires disrespectful rocket

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 May, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 May, 1996, 12:00am

Perhaps Ronald Arculli was being a little unfair on Robin Cook.

If the shadow foreign secretary hadn't been sitting there in person, he said, he might have been fooled into thinking it was Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind instead.

You had the distinct feeling he wasn't talking about their Scottish accents.

(That would have been even more unfair. The accents are different. You would never catch Mr Rifkind talking about China's place in the 'woreld'.) No, the target of Mr Arculli's scorn was clearly the content, not the form. An awful lot of what Mr Cook had to say did sound uncannily familiar.

Familiar, yes. But identical? Surely, Ron, a man of your experience could hear the little nuances of difference? Like the promise of unconditional right of abode for Hong Kong's stateless minorities.

Like the bald assertion that, yes, the provisional legislature was impossible to reconcile with the Joint Declaration.

Like the dry, witty delivery, unpunctuated by silly, nervous laughter.

But Mr Arculli was hardly the only one not prepared to be entirely fair. In fact, about two-thirds of Legco's 60 members did not bother to turn up and hear what the shadow foreign secretary had to say. And of those that did, several wandered out before the end of the session.

Fred Li even managed to prompt a flash of anger by suggesting that as directly elected men of the world both he and Mr Cook understood that what people promised in opposition wasn't what they delivered in government. He called on Mr Cook to cut the lip service and talk about things that were possible not 'hollow'.

With a flash of that quick temper for which redheads like the shadow foreign secretary and From the Gallery are famous, Mr Cook sent him a rocket. It was one of those two-stage rockets that China has such trouble launching satellites from. But this was a sophisticated Westminster product and landed right on target.

'I am mildly offended . . . ' was all that could be heard above roar of the lift-off. 'This is not lip service.' Then the spent fuel cylinder dropped away and the second stage homed in directly on Mr Li's soft underbelly. 'You cannot expect me to respect your integrity,' concluded Mr Cook, 'if you don't accept mine.' Legislators were not particularly impressed.

Nor did they respond as positively as Mr Cook must have anticipated to his promise of right of abode for stateless people from the ethnic minorities. Emily Lau simply pocketed the offer and demanded citizenship for three million Hong Kong British Nationals - which he had already said no mainstream British party could accept.

Was Labour waiting for another Tiananmen massacre before it changed its mind, she asked, or would it not change its mind even after another massacre? Still at least Selina Chow was kind.

'Hopefully,' said the Liberal Party No 2, looking forward to his next visit, 'you'll be foreign secretary.' Was this the party line, we wondered quietly. Wasn't it party chairman Allen Lee who had expressed the hope that Mr Rifkind's party would still be in power next year? Perhaps Liberal Party legislators really cannot tell Labour and Conservative apart? Or maybe this was just another of those harmless little U-turns.