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Law: Proof positive that there's life after wallpaper

Controversy has dogged Derry Irvine ever since he became Lord Chancellor. Two new books will add to that. But he is determined to rise above his critics.
Derry Irvine must have thought all his bad publicity was behind him. But last week the publication of two new books meant "that wallpaper" and the Cardinal Wolsey comparison - as well as a host of other controversies surrounding the Lord Chancellor's first months in office - came back to haunt him.

The most damaging is contained in the diary entries of Janet Jones, the wife of Lord Richard, the former Labour leader of the House of Lords. Although these are only second-hand accounts of what her husband had told her, they come with the kind of attention to detail that creates an air of authenticity. For example, who would have dreamt up the revelation that it was Lord Irvine's idea to sell tickets for a debate between top American lawyers and British ones in the House of Lords to coincide with 16,000 Americans attending the American Bar Association conference in London next year?

By 28 November 1997, we learn, this idea had been "sat on". For Derry Irvine the diaries are nothing but bad news. Everything said is intended to cast the Lord Chancellor in a worst possible light. Even his well-known tough working schedule is used against him. Lord Richard complains that the only reason meetings with the Lord Chancellor start as early as 8.30am is because "he's taken on too much".

Of much less concern to the Lord Chancellor will be Dominic Egan's unauthorised biography, Derry Irvine: Politically Correct?. The book tells us nothing new about the Lord Chancellor and even includes a series of interviews with barristers who were pupils when he was in charge at 11 King's Bench Walk. Unsurprisingly, these are all loyal and glowing. And, of course, we don't get to hear from his two most famous pupils - Tony Blair and Cherie Booth. In fact, the most telling revelations are in a rehashed interview the Lord Chancellor gave to The Sun newspaper last year.

If a week is a long time in politics two-and-half years is a political epoch. The Lord Chancellor is no longer the man he was when he first joined the Government in May 1997, nor the man he is described as being in both these books. Two years in government have refined a temperament which many considered pompous and bullying. More significantly, his power base, far from being diminished, has been restored and, perhaps, even enhanced.

His trip to China is testament to that. In the summer Lord Irvine became the first Lord Chancellor to make a state visit to the Peoples' Republic. During his week in China he met a number of Chinese ministers and gave a series of speeches, which trod carefully by not referring to the country's record on human rights and the British Government's desire to build further trade relations with the communist state. In many ways it set the tone and paved the way for the Chinese President, Jiang Zemin's more controversial visit to London last month.

Some commentators now suggest that the once gaffe-prone Lord Chancellor - best known for his penchant for Pugin wallpaper and fine art - has recovered to the point of being Tony Blair's second most important figure in the Cabinet after Gordon Brown.

As the last two government reshuffles have shown, the Lord Chancellor's department (LCD) is becoming a hothouse breeding ground for junior ministers.

Geoff Hoon, a former unknown Crown Prosecution Service barrister, was promoted to the Foreign Office. Then in the last reshuffle, the relatively unknown Mr Hoon surprised ministers by being catapulted to Defence Secretary.

Likewise Keith Vaz, the Leicester MP who replaced Mr Hoon at the LCD, and with just four months of ministerial experience, found himself promoted to the post of Minister for Europe in the Foreign Office.

They may have moved on but both men remain loyal and faithful to their political patron, Lord Irvine. However, there are plenty of detractors in Whitehall who resent the fact the Lord Chancellor's Office appears to have become a school for junior ministers. Two more pupils are David Lock, who has taken the lion's share of the minister's portfolio at the LCD, and Jane Kennedy, a non-lawyer, who is being groomed for a more senior role.

The hothouse minister accusation is given credence by the fact that Lord Irvine has broken with tradition to become the first Lord Chancellor to have more than one junior minister. Indeed, the practise of having a minister at the LCD only began during the previous Tory administration.

A secure power base, and the full backing of the Prime Minister, means Lord Irvine has been able to turn his attention to unfinished business. Last month it emerged that he had hired one of the country's most expensive QCs to fight his appeal over the appointment of his friend Garry Hart as a special adviser. Lord Irvine has instructed Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, in addition to another QC. Sir Sydney is understood to charge himself out at around pounds 5,000 for the preliminary appeal hearing. In May this year an employment tribunal ruled against Lord Irvine over his decision to appoint a personal friend to the special adviser's position at the LCD. The post was not advertised and the tribunal found Lord Irvine guilty of sex discrimination, saying he had denied other solicitors the chance to apply for the pounds 73,000 post. In the past few months Lord Irvine has also resisted calls for him to step down in his joint role as head of the judiciary and a serving Cabinet minister. By already sitting three times this year as a Law Lord, and by giving a number of speeches declaring support for his dual role, the Lord Chancellor appears to have no intention of giving in. He can draw on the support of many senior judges. Last week the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, told journalists that he saw no need for the Lord Chancellor to surrender his right to sit as a Law Lord while being a member of the executive. While no-one would have sat down and deliberately designed the role of Lord Chancellor in a British constitution, it does work, said Lord Bingham. "I think his function is powerfully contributory to the way the system works and I support his right to sit as a member of the judiciary." However, Lord Bingham added the caveat: "But it's unthinkable that heshould sit on any case which involves the interests of the Government or in devolution matters."

But there are other causes, which attract equally strong support from the judges, which Lord Irvine may not win. The battle to end "secret soundings", where judges and senior lawyers are privately consulted on the suitability of judicial candidates, is hotting up.

The Law Society has further attracted the Lord Chancellor's wrath by boycotting the system while even sections of the Bar can see the sense in replacing it with something more transparent. In the meantime, the Lord Chancellor is waiting for Sir Leonard Peach's report on judicial appointments due in the next six weeks. But not in silence.

Last week Lord Irvine told the Parliamentary Select Committee on Home Affairs that the system had a certain "beauty".