Labour's hot potato

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 January, 1998, 12:00am

When British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook arrives in Hong Kong today for talks on everything from the May elections to financial crises, his demeanour may indicate that someone is missing - Prime Minister Tony Blair personally vetoed him bringing along his mistress Mrs Gaynor Regan.

Early last week Mr Cook, widely regarded as a skilful, intelligent foreign secretary, announced that he was divorcing Margaret, his wife of 28 years. He hoped for a 'quick' settlement, a 'swift divorce,' he said.

Mrs Cook, it seems, is not at one with her husband's desire for a swift settlement. Given that it is he who has been the adulterous partner, she holds most of the legal cards to block such a divorce.

Nonetheless, Mr Cook said that as soon as the divorce was through, he hoped to marry 'the woman I love' who recently moved into his official residence in opulent Carlton Terrace Gardens.

He also let it be known that his lover, his former House of Commons secretary, would accompany him on official visits - in which he is currently representing the European Union and Britain, during the country's six-month presidency of the organisation.

But Prime Minister Tony Blair differed from his foreign secretary. A statement from Downing Street and the Foreign Office soon confirmed that Mrs Regan would not be travelling to either Washington or Ottawa last week, or Beijing and Hong Kong this week, thus saving a lot of embarrassment all round.

Officials quickly backtracked, saying the decision had been taken by Mr Cook himself, fearing the negative publicity that might accompany the visits.

Mr Blair, who came to power last May promising an end to the scandal and 'sleaze' which dominated the last years of Tory power, is known to have been angry that Mr Cook's affair overshadowed his own visit to Japan last week.

Had Mrs Regan accompanied Mr Cook on the current trips then those visits too would have been dominated in the British media by stories on the cost of the foreign secretary taking his girlfriend with him while his maltreated wife stayed at home.

Curiously, new Tory leader William Hague has come to Mr Cook's rescue. Mr Hague married for the first time just before Christmas and has made no secret of his nuptial agreement to devote more than the normal politician's lot of time with his wife.

The Tory leader expressed his 'extreme sorrow' for Mrs Cook but added: 'I don't think you can say that you can't have a foreign secretary who leaves his wife.' He added: 'Mind you I wish that people had treated Conservative politicians as fairly as we now treat Labour politicians.' The presence of a mistress does cause protocol problems. Hong Kong officials were puzzling over what to do with Mrs Regan.

Buckingham Palace has made it clear that Mrs Regan will not be invited to state banquets alongside the minister. Such occasions are reserved only for spouses.

But what will happen when Britain hosts the Asia-Europe Meeting of finance ministers (ASEM) and the G7 meeting later this year when traditionally there are separate programmes arranged for spouses and partners? Cynical observers have commented that things were much simpler under the Tories when ministers who may have had mistresses at least made a show of taking their wives on official trips.

Under New Labour there are a series of potential political problems. The Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, is a homosexual with a live-in boyfriend, Dorian Jabri, whom he takes with him on official functions.

Some other ministers have long-standing partners who they have no intention of marrying.

The Government published a document called Ministerial Code - A Code of Conduct and Guidance on Procedures for Ministers in July laying down that it would only pay for trips where it was clearly in the public interest for a minister to be accompanied by his or her 'spouse'.

Since then it has backtracked furiously accepting 'established and permanent partner' as equivalent to spouse. Mrs Regan, apparently, comes under that category.

Mr Cook is seen as being generally effective so far - for example, he successfully chaired the potentially divisive United Nations Security Council meeting over Iraq in November which defused the first recent Baghdad crisis.

But his unwillingness to show any contrition towards his wife has won him no friends in Britain, especially when compared with Home Secretary Jack Straw who won much public praise when he took his allegedly drug-dealing son straight to the police.

By contrast, the gnomish Mr Cook appears selfish and conceited.

Letters to the broadsheet newspapers have asked how foreign governments can trust a minister who betrays those closest to him.

Meanwhile, Mrs Cook has played the game hard herself, with a full-length interview describing her husband's earlier romantic escapades. It is alleged he had other affairs with the wife of a senior Tory and a Labour official.

Her story has included anecdotes about the nastier side of his character revealing, for instance, that he tried to hog the telephone to file a few racing tips to a Scottish newspaper (he is an avid race-goer) while she, a doctor, needed to organise an emergency blood transfusion for a patient.

The effective end to their marriage was equally nasty. Both were due to fly out on a three-week holiday in the US when they were summoned to the phone in London's Heathrow airport's VIP suite. It was the Prime Minister's press secretary with news that a Sunday tabloid was about to break the story of the affair.

Mr Cook was given an ultimatum - he had to decide within an hour whether it was Mrs Cook or Mrs Regan he would stay with. He chose the former and did not make it to the US.

That was the weekend last summer when the Government's spin doctor-in-chief Peter Mandelson leaked the story about an investigation into Chris Patten's use of official documents in connection with his friend Jonathan Dimbleby's book.

The Patten episode was soon forgotten. The embarrassment over Mr Cook continues.