Cook resigns from cabinet over Iraq
Matthew Tempest, political correspondent
Guardian - Monday, March 17, 2003
Robin Cook, the leader of the Commons and a former foreign secretary,
today resigned from the government in protest over the prime minister's
stance on Iraq.
Following a weekend of fervent speculation - and silence from Mr Cook
himself - the minister left Downing Street before the start of today's
Mr Cook said in a statement: "It is 20 years ago that I first joined
Labour's shadow cabinet. It is with regret I have today resigned from its
cabinet. I can't accept collective responsibility for the decision to
commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international
agreement or domestic support."
He becomes the first - but possibly not the last - cabinet minister to
resign over the looming conflict in the Gulf.
He is now expected to make a public statement on his resignation in the
Commons tonight, following Jack Straw's address to MPs at 7pm.
This could be a highly dramatic moment, as Mr Cook is a veteran Commons
orator, and is expected to take apart the legal basis for a pre-emptive
attack on Iraq with forensic skill.
In his letter of resignation, Mr Cook made clear that he had raised his
worries over a US/UK attack over some time with the prime minister -
although absolved Mr Blair from blame for the failure of the UN to secure
a second resolution.
He wrote: "At cabinet for some weeks I have been frank about my concern
over embarking on military action in the absence of multilateral support.
"In principle I believe it is wrong to embark on military action without
broad international support. In practice I believe it is against
Britain's interests to create a precedent for unilateral military action.
"As our foreign secretary I was impressed by the energy and skill with
which you ended Britain's isolation in Europe and achieved for our
country equal status and influence to Germany or France. I am dismayed
that once again Britain is divided from our major European neighbours.
"As president of the party of European socialists, of which the Labour
party is a member, it troubles me that I know of no sister party within
the European Union that shares our position."
Mr Blair, in response, praised Mr Cook's time as foreign secretary and
leader of the Commons, but used the majority of his letter to justify the
government's position - largely blaming the French.
He wrote; "I want to thank you for the contribution you made in your two
cabinet posts, and no doubt will continue to make, to forging better
relations between Britain and the rest of the EU. When the current crisis
is over, this will be particularly important.
"On your resignation, I have always tried to resolve this crisis through
the UN, as you recognise in your letter. But I was always clear that the
UN must be the way of dealing with the issue, not avoiding dealing with
"The government is staying true to resolution 1441. Others, in the face
of continuing Iraqi non-compliance, are walking away from it.
As I have said to you, the threatened French veto set back hugely the
considerable progress we were making in building consensus among UNSC
Mr Cook's colleague, Clare Short, the international development
secretary, last week threatened to quit the government if an attack on
Iraq took place without a second UN resolution.
However, Ms Short - at present - appears to still be in the government.
Mr Cook's position as leader of the Commons, where he has done much to
modernise MPs working hours while losing the battle for a more democratic
upper chamber, can be easily filled - most probably by the current chief
whip, Hilary Armstrong. However, the political significance lies in Mr
Cook's five years as Mr Blair's first foreign secretary, the post now
occupied by Jack Straw.
A PPS to Margaret Beckett, Andy Reed, has already quit over Iraq, and Mr
Blair has survived a rebellion by 122 Labour backbenchers, all of whom
voted for a motion saying the case for war on Iraq was "not proven".
Although the Conservative frontbench has pledged its support for the
prime minister's position of allying Britain to a US-led attack on Iraq,
several high-profile backbench Tories have come out against military
action, including former chancellor Kenneth Clarke.
A Conservative junior whip, John Randall, has also resigned his post in
Mr Cook's Commons deputy Ben Bradshaw was seen going into Downing Street
before the cabinet meeting and speculation was that he will be asked to
make a brief business statement to MPs outlining the timetable now the
peace process with Iraq has been abandoned and war could begin.
Mr Cook's decision to quit the cabinet will cost him almost £70,000 a
year in lost pay.
As Leader of the House of Commons he was entitled to a salary of
£124,979. As a plain backbench MP, his salary will be £55,118 a year.
The former culture secretary Chris Smith mourned the resignation of Mr
Cook, saying having the former Commons leader on the backbenches left the
Downing Street later announced it would publish in full the letters of
correspondence between the prime minister and Mr Cook.
The shadow foreign secretary, Michael Ancram, said: "While we understand
Robin Cook's reasons for resigning, disunity within the cabinet is a
matter of concern at this time.
"We hope the prime minister will take further steps to ensure that his
cabinet speaks with one voice."
The Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, Menzies Campbell, said:
"It was always likely that Robin Cook, who sought to introduce an ethical
dimension into foreign policy, would find the ambiguity of the
government's position too much to tolerate."
Paul Tyler, who speaks on House of Commons affairs for the Liberal
Democrats, added: "The government has lost its most effective Commons
performer. His leadership of the Commons gained him an unrivalled
reputation amongst fellow members.
"I have no doubt he will be a formidable presence on the backbenches."
A handful of protesters shouting "Blair out" brought Whitehall to a
standstill outside the gates to Downing Street as the cabinet met in
Police blocked off one side of the carriageway as the few protesters
waved placards and blew whistles.