Law: Charlie and the Enforcer

Lord Falconer goes from courtroom to Cabinet.
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LORD FALCONER of Thoroton QC, the new Minister of State, is half an hour late. He has just moved to the Cabinet Office to work as Minister without Portfolio alongside the "enforcer" Jack Cunningham, and this morning he appears to have lost himself in the adjacent offices of the Privy Council. Finally he appears, shirt hanging out of his trousers and hair in a mess, striding past the massive sound system that stands guard by the door of his office.

In last week's reshuffle, Lord (Charlie) Falconer, 46, was promoted after just a year as Solicitor General. The appointment stirred up accusations of cronyism in the Government - accusations that erupted all the more violently this week when Gus Macdonald was appointed Scottish Industry Minister.

On the face of it, the accusations seem justified. Lord Falconer, unlike Mr Macdonald, has known Tony Blair since boyhood (they both attended public schools in Scotland). As young barristers, they shared a flat in south London. According to some reports, they have even shared girlfriends (though never at the same time).

Shortly before the general election, the Labour leadership attempted to find him a seat, but he withdrew from contesting Dudley North to make way for Ross Cranston QC - the man who replaces him as Solicitor General. (The Falconer children's attendance at independent schools, it seemed, would not go down well with voters.) He declines to speak in detail about his appointment to the Government, beyond saying, "I was offered the job on 4 May." How long before that had he discussed joining? "It wasn't completely out of the blue."

Falconer's elevation to the Lords last year went against the convention that law officers - the Attorney General and the Solicitor General - should come from the Commons. He had no great record for left-wing cases or human rights work. On the contrary, he has acted for British Nuclear Fuels (against leukaemia victims) and for British Coal (against unions).

But Lord Falconer cannot reasonably be accused of advancing himself. His new position attracts a salary of just pounds 53,264 - a healthy sum by most people's standards, but rather lower than his salary as Solicitor General (pounds 80,290); it is also less than a tenth of what he is likely to have earned as a barrister until the general election last year. He has also done some work for the Labour Party, advising on a challenge to its control of Wolverhampton Council, and its response to the Scott Inquiry.

And Lord Falconer is one of the few politicians to have progressed to a senior level in the law. Others, such as Mr Blair and the Minister of State in the Lord Chancellor's Department, Geoff Hoon MP, may have qualified as barristers but they did not practise for long.

As Solicitor General, he deliberately went out to meet legal and other groups around the country. According to his former parliamentary private secretary, Keith Vaz MP, Falconer carried out more engagements in a year than his predecessors as solicitor general in a whole decade. He also "brought a breath of fresh air to a department not known for charismatic figures".

The promotion represents a momentous change. Lord Falconer has been a lawyer for 25 years. Both his father and grandfather were lawyers before him. "Everything has involved law in some way or other," he says. "For the first time, I'm not doing a lawyer's job, which is liberating in some respects. It's great for lawyers to have a change. I'm incredibly excited about doing something general."

His new, informal title, "deputy enforcer", is misleading, making him sound like a supplementary whip. "The whips are responsible for parliamentary business," he explains, "but this is about the machinery of government itself."

Lord Falconer, with Dr Cunningham above him, will formalise and enhance co-ordination of policy across the entire Government, tackling the parochialism which has beset individual departments.

Nor does "enforcer" mean "bully". Former colleagues insist that the popular, cheerful Lord Falconer could hardly be less of a bruiser. His former head of chambers at Fountain Court, Peter Scott QC, long ago recognised in him the sort of person who can weigh up dispassionately the pros and cons of given policies. (Mr Scott appointed him to a role that required several of the qualities needed in the new government job: chairman of the chambers' strategic committee.)

Would all barristers make good politicians? "That depends entirely on the personality involved," Lord Falconer says. "The biggest challenge was to make the transition from private practice to government. A job in government requires teamwork. Instead of simply persuading a judge that you are right, you must play a team role."

Having learnt that lesson, Lord Falconer may find it hard to return to the law. "It can be difficult to go back," Mr Scott says. "But he would be extremely welcome back at Fountain Court."

Lord Falconer does not think that returning to the law would be too difficult: "Everyone tells me it is, but the present Attorney General used to be Secretary of State for Wales before going back to a successful career in criminal law."

For the immediate future the question remains hypothetical. It is not likely to be the most important thing on his mind as he finds his way round the unfamiliar corridors of the Cabinet Office.