The foreign secretary's public acknowledgement of his longstanding affair with Gaynor Regan, 41, an English literature graduate and former nurse, had been led by a newspaper. Last summer, the foreign secretary was interrupted en route to a holiday with wife Margaret Cook—at 52, two years his senior—when Alistair Campbell, press secretary to the prime minister, called him on his mobile phone to say that the tabloid News of the World had 'got' the story about Cook and Regan. Cook, it was suggested, should take a decision. The holiday ended, before it began, at Heathrow airport. Cook promptly took his wife to the VIP lounge at Terminal 4 and told her the marriage was over. "Holiday is cancelled and by the way, so is our marriage", read a newspaper headline the next morning. Cook had been led into a decision he had been unable to take in the several years of the affair.
Last fortnight came the next newspaper act. In the magazine section of The Times on January 10, Margaret Cook let slip in an interview, quietly but with potentially devastating effect for Cook, that he had had "several affairs" through their 28 years of marriage—the wife of a Tory minister and a Labour party official among them. Cook the present-day lover was one thing; Cook the serial adulterer, another. The flak followed in all the Sunday newspapers.
And, the same morning, Cook announced to reporters at Edinburgh airport that he would marry Ms Regan. It was only later, according to the newspapers, that he informed his wife. "The only relationship I am having is with the woman I love and the woman I am going to marry," Cook said at an informal press conference at Edinburgh airport. "And I am getting married as soon as I am divorced. I have no intention of resigning. Nor have I been asked to." However, despite the infusion of respectability, the foreign secretary has been forced to abandon his initial plan of taking prospective Wife No. 2 on the second leg of his tour to Hong Kong and China—it was feared the diplomatic trip would be overshadowed by his marital problems.
Inevitably, Cook's love life has raised questions about the gap between the public and private face of men in public life. Tony Blair has said he will not act against ministers over their personal affairs. Too many ministers might have to be sacked.
But the two faces have not been divorced. What Margaret Cook has had to say about Cook the man, explains much about Cook the foreign secretary. He wants, she said, the support and adoration of younger women who look up to him. What he cannot cope with is, according to Margaret, a consultant haemotologist, is the give-and-take of a modern marriage between two equals. And Cook, she said, had told her that he was frightened of her strength and her independence. On one occasion, she said, she needed to use the phone to call her hospital for an emergency. Cook insisted on using it to dictate a column on horse-racing.
Margaret made another revealing remark about the Terminal 4 conversation. "By this stage in our marriage I had learnt that Robin often said things that he did not mean, and hoped this might have happened here." It did not, but it would not have been out of character, she suggested. Some South Asian heads might nod here.
According to columnist Carol Sarler, "The qualities of a man who will win success are the qualities that will win him a woman: ruthlessness, single-mindedness, selfishness, ambition and a happy willingness to brawl in the gutter if necessary." Cook acted ruthlessly to save his face and job in the face of public scandal. Robin Cook is not nice. And that, we are told, makes him desirable to women. But in all this there lies a message for the diplomat too.