Political Focus, with Bill Jacobs

JACK STRAW and Robin Cook have both benefited from their boss Tony Blair's loyalty to his lieutenants in times of crisis.

The Blackburn MP's problems with his son William and drugs might have persuaded a lesser Prime Minister to desert him.

But Mr Blair stood by his Home Secretary and promptly took him on a US tour to emphasise that he was a key man in his Cabinet.

This was despite his own and Mr Straw's strong line on law and order, drugs and the responsibilities of parents.

He was rewarded by Mr Straw leading the offensive to fight back against allegations that the government was sucking up to rich donors and deserting the hard-up over their welfare to work reforms.

His favourite did a good job - as he has done with most things since he took office - including son William's indiscretions to a national newspaper reporter.

Mr Cook's marriage problems might seem more serious to a committed Christian like Mr Blair. But he made clear that it was the Foreign Secretary's private business - even if the Prime Minister's Press Secretary Alistair Campbell was brutal as soon as news of his affair with constituency secretary Gaynor Regan broke.

Both the Premier and his spin-doctor seem to have expected Mr Cook to dump Gaynor when he spoke to his wife Margaret in the departure lounge of Heathrow Airport on a family holiday.

But despite any surprise at his choice of mistress instead of spouse - and the carefully calculated sniping from the previous Mrs Cook - Mr Blair has stuck by his most left-wing Cabinet Minister.

This week Mr Cook was personally chosen by the Prime Minister to launch the speeches celebrating the first year of the new Labour government. It was the clearest possible endorsement of the Foreign Secretary and his abrasive style.

For Mr Cook would not have been chosen to be the government's chief diplomatic representative if he had wanted the emollient style characterised by predecessor Malcolm Rifkind.

And indeed his aggressive approach to the subject of Israeli settlements at Har Homa in East Jerusalem was not only backed by Mr Blair but ensured the success of the Prime Minister's peace mission to the Middle East.

Right-wing Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyhu could afford a spat with the combative Mr Cook over the peace process.

But in the wake of Mr Blair's Northern Ireland Peace Process triumph and, taking account of his close relationship with US President Bill Clinton, he had little choice but to agree with the Foreign Secretary's internationally feted boss.

To refuse a London peace conference and a meeting (if not of minds) with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would put him in the same international class of Pariahs as the Republican and Loyalist terrorists trying the blow the Ulster peace accord apart.

Mr Cook this week repaid his boss with a strong defence of New Labour's "Third Way" between Conservatism and Socialism, advocating Welfare to Work as a defining achievement of the new government and securing the intellectual Left, of which he is the leader, into the government's New Labour philosophy.

But it is a characteristic of Mr Blair to support colleagues in difficulty. The change is far more than a rejection of the John Major (or indeed Margaret Thatcher) years, when an initial defence was followed by a brutal sacking.

Mr Blair knows talent when he sees it and is not prepared - despite his controversial courting of Sun owner Rupert Murdoch - to be dictated to by the tabloids.

He has stood by Chancellor Gordon Brown and his Chief Whip and ally, namesake Nick, over their contribution to a damaging semi-authorised biography of the second most powerful man in the Cabinet.

He has refused to ditch the outspoken and passionate left-winger Clare Short as Overseas Development Secretary despite her attacks on Mr Campbell and "spin doctors" and the hostility of Mr Cook and his department to her filching of part of the Foreign Office empire to a separate Cabinet department.

Mr Blair has realised what few of his predecessors in 10 Downing Street have, that building a team of not-necessarily like-minded or politically-agreed able politicians is the key to good government.

And the tolerance of a few personal and political foibles is even more important.

For when Cabinet Ministers as able an important as Mr Cook and Mr Straw realise their position and future depend on the Prime Minister understanding their ability, enthusiasm and effort, their loyalty is assured.

And the main beneficiary is the ever-friendly Mr Blair - the ruthlessness of whom is equally apparent to everybody who has seen him reconstruct the Labour Party and Labour movement with little respect for the past and a shrewd eye for future success.

Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.